Unless your reference point is a time long ago in a galaxy far, far away, space exploration connotes the future. It is, after all, the final frontier. But the paradox of space exploration is that while it requires the collaboration of today’s best minds to develop and implement the most futuristic technologies, what we learn often sheds new light on our distant past.
Take the asteroid 16 Psyche: First identified by the Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis in 1852, it was named after the Greek goddess of the soul. (The numerical nomenclature references Psyche as the 16th asteroid discovered.) Earlier this year, NASA, through its lower-cost Discovery Program, contracted a mission to Psyche. The spacecraft is expected to launch in the early 2020s.
Christopher Russell Ph.D. ’68, a professor in UCLA’s Department of Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences, is no stranger to NASA’s Discovery Program. He is the principal investigator on Discovery’s Dawn mission, which orbited and explored the giant protoplanet Vesta in 2011–2012 and is now exploring the dwarf planet Ceres. When he joined the Psyche expedition — at the invitation of Lindy Elkins-Tanton of Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration — the stars had aligned.
Most asteroids are composed of rock, ice or both. Not Psyche, which most scientists believe is made of metal. Russell’s role in the project, along with his UCLA team and one member from MIT, is to build a magnetometer that will measure the strength and direction of the asteroid’s magnetic field.
“For us earthlings, the magnetometer measures the Earth’s magnetic field — it tells you how strong it is pointing East-West or North-South,” Russell says. “We use [the magnetic field] for navigation; it protects us from the solar wind. But it’s something we have to be watching all the time because it is indicative of disturbances that can affect our technological equipment, our electrical current systems, our communications.”
Down the corridor from Russell’s Slichter Hall office is a lab where he and his colleagues will build the magnetometer. But don’t expect to find a pristine, high-tech clean room; it’s more like your dad’s garage, with gizmos and gear strewn across a maze of worktables. Only this garage has a vacuum chamber for testing equipment in a spacelike atmosphere. “If you can understand the magnetic field of Psyche, you get some idea of what Psyche was doing when it was formed,” Russell says. “Psyche’s got a density approaching that of iron. The Earth’s core has iron in it, so maybe Psyche is or was a core of a smaller body. The theory is that Psyche is the core of a larger body that got destroyed, leaving only the iron.” If that is true, studying Psyche could reveal clues about the origin and evolution of the Earth’s own iron core, he adds.
Although designing and building the magnetometer is Russell’s immediate priority on the Psyche project, it’s the data — the science — that really matters to him. “UCLA has rules, and one of the rules we work with is that we don’t compete with industry by building things and then selling them. We’re in it for the science,” Russell says. “We probably spend more money doing science with data than we spend on building things. Building things is just a means to the end. But if you are really interested in the science, then chances are you’ll do a better job at building that instrument, and that’s also part of the philosophy.”
Originally published at magazine.ucla.edu.