Lindy Elkins-Tanton: Hello every­one. I’m Lindy Elkins-Tanton. I’m the Director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University. 

My son Turner and I were stand­ing on a cause­way next to an estu­ary in coastal Florida as the sun was ris­ing. And we were peer­ing through binoc­u­lars at the launch­pad at Cape Canaveral, where they were about to launch the MAVEN mis­sion to Mars. And even from where we were a num­ber of miles away, the launch was absolute­ly breath­tak­ing. The hair stood up on the back of my neck, and the rock­et engines ignit­ed with the roar of a thou­sand race­cars. And then Turner and I turned to each oth­er and we said almost at the same time, I real­ly hope the next launch we come to is ours.” 

Because I’d come to this amaz­ing moment in my life where I was propos­ing a mis­sion to NASA. And had I imag­ined that I was going to do this when I was a stu­dent? No, I had nev­er imag­ined that. Unlike a lot of the sci­en­tists who were work­ing on the MAVEN launch, I had not gone straight through in sci­ence. After my Masters I worked in busi­ness for eight years. I worked as a man­age­ment con­sul­tant, and I did finan­cial fore­cast­ing for US News & World Report, and I wrote busi­ness plans for young high-tech ven­tures look­ing for invest­ment. And then I taught math at a lib­er­al arts col­lege for two years before I went back for my PhD. And I start­ed my PhD at age 31 as a sin­gle par­ent. I had been inves­ti­gat­ing dif­fer­ent areas of human endeav­or, try­ing to fig­ure out which one had the most mean­ing for me. And in the end, acad­e­mia has giv­en me both the oppor­tu­ni­ty to ask the biggest ques­tions and also the sched­ule flex­i­bil­i­ty to stay deeply con­nect­ed to my family. 

And so now I’m a plan­e­tary sci­en­tist, try­ing to under­stand how rocky plan­ets like Earth get their structure—how they’re built. And also what makes them hab­it­able. And the best way to under­stand Earth is in the con­text of the oth­er rocky plan­ets in our solar sys­tem: Mercury, Venus, and Mars. And that requires space missions. 

So why do we explore space? First of all, because explo­ration is a human imper­a­tive. It’s built into us. Everything from Magellan to Captain Janeway. And explo­ration aligns humankind look­ing out­ward instead of allow­ing us to be dis­tract­ed by the irri­ta­tions that lie between us both as peo­ple and as nations. And for me per­son­al­ly, I’m real­ly inter­est­ed in the aster­oids and the small bod­ies that lie among the famil­iar plan­ets of our solar sys­tem. Because they’re the left­overs of plan­e­tary for­ma­tion ear­ly in the solar sys­tem. And so by study­ing them we actu­al­ly trav­el back in time to study the process­es that built the plan­ets. And then we can take that infor­ma­tion with us while we inves­ti­gate plan­ets around oth­er stars—exoplanets.

But not every insti­tu­tion can do this kind of big sci­ence, can try to answer this kind of big sci­ence ques­tion. It requires a ded­i­ca­tion to inter­dis­ci­pli­nary work. And it requires a patience with the long time­lines that big ques­tions require. And it also requires a pos­i­tive, col­lab­o­ra­tive, team­work kind of cul­ture. And a lot of insti­tu­tions don’t have that. But we have that here at ASU

Making progress in sci­ence requires new obser­va­tions. Every time we send a mis­sion into space, we get sur­pris­es. The solar sys­tem sur­pris­es us and gives us things we don’t antic­i­pate every time we send a mis­sion out there. Think of the New Horizons mis­sion to Pluto and to the amaz­ing­ly detailed images we have of Pluto’s sur­face for the first time ever. There were a lot of us who thought that Pluto was going to be a bit of a yawn. We thought it was going to be sort of a dirty ice­ball. But these images show us smooth areas on the sur­face, and moun­tains, and fea­tures that indi­cate that Pluto was a warm, active plan­et much longer than we had anticipated. 

And so in the sum­mer of 2012, I found myself at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory design­ing a space mis­sion. Some peo­ple at JPL had read a paper that I’d writ­ten, and they want­ed to design a mis­sion to test it. So who could resist that? We were in a room called Left Field, which is lined with white­boards and shelves that have con­struc­tion toys and Legos and Post-it notes and mark­ers. And it is a play­ground for cre­ativ­i­ty. In fact when we walked in, we found some Post-it notes that have been left by the pre­vi­ous mission-planning ses­sion. It’s a very effec­tive room. And I was there with about ten of my favorite sci­ence friends, plan­ning a space mis­sion to help us under­stand how rocky plan­ets get their structure. 

So our famil­iar planets—Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars—have an iron-nickel met­al core and rocky exte­ri­or. But how and when do they get that struc­ture? Planets are born as gas and dust orbit­ing the infant sun. And in just one one-hundredth of the age of the solar sys­tem, they build up into the famil­iar plan­ets that we see, these dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed bod­ies with iron-nickel met­al in the mid­dle and rock on the outside. 

So we decid­ed that the best place to inves­ti­gate this process is the aster­oid Psyche. Psyche is a small world that seems to be made almost entire­ly of iron-nickel met­al. Imagine that. Humankind, we have vis­it­ed through space mis­sions rocky plan­ets and moons, and icy moons, and we’ve vis­it­ed plan­ets that are made of gas. But we have nev­er seen a met­al plan­et. We do not know what this will look like. Psyche is out between Mars and Jupiter, and it’s nev­er been vis­it­ed and we’ve nev­er had an image of it that’s more than just a point of light. So this would be true explo­ration, and true discovery. 

So what might Psyche real­ly look like? Could its sur­face be cov­ered with sul­fur lava flows? Could it have tow­er­ing fault scarps that were cre­at­ed when the hot liq­uid met­al froze and shrank and the exte­ri­or of the body broke into scarps—fault scarps? Could its sur­face be a glit­ter­ing com­bi­na­tion of iron-nickel met­al and green crys­tals, the way some iron mete­orites are that have fall­en to Earth? And what would an impact crater into a met­al sur­face look like? We’ve nev­er seen one. Could the splash­es or the edges freeze in the cold of space before they fall back onto the sur­face of the body? 

We think Psyche is the met­al core of a small plan­et that was destroyed in the high-energy, high-speed first one one-hundredth of the solar sys­tem’s time. It is the only way that humankind can ever vis­it a met­al core, because Psyche is the only body like it in the solar sys­tem, and we can nev­er go to the Earth’s core. The earth­’s core lies at about 3,000 kilo­me­ters’ depth. But the far­thest that humans have ever drilled into the sur­face of the Earth is just twelve kilo­me­ters. And the sur­face of the core deep inside the Earth has a pres­sure about three mil­lion times air pres­sure that we have around us right now. And the tem­per­a­ture is about 5000°C, which is approx­i­mate­ly 10,000°F, so we are nev­er going to go there. But Psyche gives us a chance to vis­it inner space by vis­it­ing out­er space. 

So about forty of us teamed up and we wrote this pro­pos­al in con­cert with Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Space Systems/Loral. And the Psyche mis­sion pro­pos­al has just been select­ed as a final­ist in this round of selec­tions. We hope to go to Psyche and orbit for a year, learn­ing how rocky plan­ets are built. 

Science makes progress in incre­ments. And we try to make them the biggest incre­ments we can, on the way to answer­ing that biggest of all sci­ence ques­tions: are we alone in the uni­verse? And so please cross your fin­gers and cross your toes that when the announce­ment is made in the Fall of 2016 Psyche is cho­sen for flight. And then we can stand on that cause­way and watch our mis­sion get launched into space. 

And just like sci­ence, peo­ple make progress in incre­ments, too. You nev­er know the skills that you’re going to gath­er along the way that make it pos­si­ble to ful­fill a vision. And every vision starts with a moment of inspi­ra­tion. Sometimes it’s an image that’s just a point of light in space. Sometimes it’s as sim­ple as a pile of Legos or a Post-it note. Like the ones that we found in the Left Field room when we went in to plan our own mis­sion. Thank you very much.