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NASA to launch two asteroid exploration missions in early 2020s

NASA is planning two missions to asteroids in the early 2020s to explore the solar system's origins, the space agency announced Wednesday.

The first mission, Lucy, is slated to head for the Trojan asteroids in Jupiter's orbit in 2021. The asteroids are thought to be from the solar system's earliest days, which is why scientists named the mission after humans' famous 3.2-million-year-old relative, Lucy.

Then, in 2023, the Psyche mission will launch destined for what NASA describes as a "giant metal asteroid" called Psyche 16, which is nearly "three times farther away from the sun than is the Earth." Psyche 16 is composed of iron and nickel, just like Earth's core, and scientists think it could be the core of an early planet.

"Lucy will observe primitive remnants from farther out in the solar system, while Psyche will directly observe the interior of a planetary body," said NASA planetary science director Jim Green. "These additional pieces of the puzzle will help us understand how the sun and its family of planets formed, changed over time, and became places where life could develop and be sustained — and what the future may hold."

The missions, selected from five possible endeavors, are part of NASA's Discovery Program.