Metal asteroid Psyche is all set for an early visit from NASA

Metal asteroid Psyche is all set for an early visit from NASA
Credit: NASA/JPL

Three times further away from the sun than the Earth lies an enormous lump of metal. Around 252km in diameter, the metallic "M-class" asteroid 16 Psyche is the target of NASA's next mission to the belt of giant rocks that encircles the inner solar system. And the space agency now plans to visit it much sooner than originally planned.

Not only has the launch has been brought forward one year to the summer of 2022, but NASA's scientists have also found a way to get to Psyche (pronounced SYKe-ee) much faster by taking a more efficient trajectory. The new route means the Psyche spacecraft won't have to swing around the Earth to build up speed and won't pass as close to the sun, so it needs less heat protection. It is now due to arrive in 2026, four years earlier than the original timeline.

The main aim of the journey to Psyshe is to gather more information about our own solar system. Psyche is one of many wandering members of the belt. Unlike the rest of its rocky neighbours, Psyche appears to be entirely made of nickel and iron, just like the Earth's core. This, together with its size, has led to the theory that it might be the remains of the inside of a planet.

Asteroids are made up of primitive materials, leftovers from the dust cloud from which our solar system originated. Different types of asteroids resemble the various steps it took to form planets from this dust cloud. This means they reveal a lot about the origin and evolution of our solar system. Scientists think Psyche could be what's left of an exposed metal core of a planet very similar to Earth.

We actually derive much of our knowledge about asteroids and the evolution of planets from the study of meteorites. Many asteroids and comets are primitive protoplanetary bodies accumulated from the same our solar system originates from. As these protoplanetary bodies collide, gravity pulls them together into ever-larger bodies. Eventually these bodies become big and hot enough to partially melt, allowing heavy materials such as iron to sink to the core – and lighter material such as silicon to rise to the surface.

This process, known as differentiation, explains why Earth and other such as Mercury, Venus or Mars have an iron core and silicon-rich mantle and crust. The 16 Psyche asteroid is thought to be the leftover iron core of a planet stripped of its mantle in a giant collision.

Metal asteroid Psyche is all set for an early visit from NASA
Psyche shares its home on the asteroid belt with more than 7,000 other planetoids. Credit: Shutterstock

But many questions regarding the formation of Psyche remain. How do you strip a planet of its mantle only leaving the core? Perhaps there is an alternative formation mechanism of an iron-rich body that does not involve differentiation? Psyche may once have been molten and, if so, did it cool from the inside out or from its surface to the core?

Also, Earth's magnetic field comes from a circling around a . Did these processes occur on Psyche and create a ? What elements other than iron accumulate in a core? And how does the surface geology of an iron body look compared to a rocky or icy body?

Avoiding collisions

There are other reasons for visiting asteroids. For one thing, possible collisions with Earth can have devastating effects. The impact of an 15km-wide asteroid approximately 65m years ago is linked to the extinction of the dinosaurs. And the explosion of the 30m-diameter Chelyabinsk asteroid over Russia in 2013 led to injuries and damage on the ground. We need to know as much as possible about the composition and physical make-up of asteroids to devise the best ways to defend our planet.

Asteroids also provide resources. Those containing water or other valuable materials may act as stepping stones for human exploration of the solar system. And asteroids crossing Earth's orbit may become convenient targets for mining operations, providing materials that are running out on Earth and potentially taking environmentally detrimental extraction methods off Earth. Companies including Planetary Resources and countries like Luxembourg have already started to pursue these ideas in earnest.

The Psyche spacecraft will carry four instruments to gather as much information about the asteroid as it can: a camera, a gamma-ray spectrometer to record what chemical elements are there, a magnetometer, and a radio gravity experiment. The data these devices collect should help us work out if Psyche is the frozen core of a former planet or simply a lump of unmelted metal. If it is a core, then it might help us determine exactly what's at the centre of our own planet.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton, the lead scientist of the mission, probably summarised it best: "We learn about inner space by visiting outer space".

Explore further

NASA announces two missions to study early solar system

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User comments

Dec 04, 2017
The only possible (honest) way to justify accessing space resources, is to use those resources for off-Earth projects. Otherwise, we taxpayers would be suckered, one more time. Into subsidizing another obsolete industry to cover the asses of Wall Street crooks.

And for those of you believers encouraging emigration off this planet. Whom I so enjoy satirizing.

Think about it this way. To accomplish your impossible dreams of white man conquering the Galaxy.
(Look out for that windmill! Ohhh, that has to hurt.)

Supporting the establishment of space industries would provide the absolutely necessary foundations for space colonization.

Once a bunch of geniuses figure out how to disregard billions of years of evolution in the Earth's Gravity Field, EM shielded atmosphere and an active biosphere including the oceans.

Piece of cake, I'm sure!

Dec 04, 2017
Once a bunch of geniuses figure out how to disregard billions of years of evolution . . .

You might want to check out a couple of fields of science of which you appear ignorant: robotics and genetic manipulation. Neither is probably not acceptable to you, but fortunately the long-term survival of life in the universe isn't up to you.

"The meek shall inherit the Earth." Fine, they can have it. Some of us want the Stars.

Dec 05, 2017
C, as the saying sort of goes. Wish a magic faerie in one hand and shit in your other hand. See which hand fills up first!

I favor an expansion of utilizing drones & waldoes, robots & automated factories for space missions.

How predictable of you to pressgang other human beings for experimentation. What? You want to pretend convicts and the impoverished are 'volunteers'? You are obviously lacking in any moral courage or ethical standards.

Are we to entrust you with dictating mankind's future? Uh, no! And hell no! You can spell the word no? You do understand the concept of no? Or, do we have to swat you on the nose with a rolled up newspaper?

There is absolutely no proven, multi-source verified, empirical evidence that Earth Life can survive, reproduce and in turn, survive long enough to reproduce future generations. Beyond the Van Allen Belts. None, nada, zilch.

Comicbook characters don't count.

You fund it. You build it, You fly it. Buh-bye!

Dec 05, 2017
You want to pretend convicts and the impoverished are 'volunteers'?

Huh. Why in the world would you want to force untrained, uninterested, and generally minimally literate people to participate in space exploration when you have qualified people lined up to take part? To call your question a 'non sequitur' is an understatement. When one group asked for volunteers for a one-way mission to Mars they were inundated with so many people that their web site crashed. I'd go myself if there were a chance in hell they'd accept me. This is not Columbus sailing off the edge of the world, no prisoners or press gangs are necessary.

Of course there's no "proven, multi-source verified, empirical evidence", no one has done it yet. How do you expect to find evidence, conjure it with your magic crystal ball? To get evidence we need to go there and **DO IT** (by "we" I obviously don't include you, just people who are actually interested in doing new and exciting things.)

Dec 06, 2017
C, you mentioned genetic engineering. Where do you think a sufficient number of human subjects for experimentation are going to come from?

As for those who signed up for space exploration? Are as ignorant as people who volunteer to become seraphim.

You want to emigrate off Earth? Fine by me. A minor quibble. How many taxpayers is it going to take to subsidize your launch? To continuously fund your pilgrim's progress in space. And, when the survivors beg to return to Earth? Can we taxpayers demand repartitions for all the resources we were forced to devote to your doomed castle in the sky?

If you were truly serious and had the courage of your convictions? You would crowdsource your funding and follow the example laid before you. By the Mormons and other successful communitarian pioneers.

Dec 06, 2017
Well, there aren't any neighbors to raid, so the Mormon model won't work well.

Sorry that you have no vision, courage or imagination, not all of us are so handicapped.

Dec 07, 2017
The Mormon's showed how to organize, plan, develop and carry-through on continent spanning migration. A large percentage from England, also had to cross the Atlantic.

For all your contempt for the accomplishments of communitarian pioneers? They at least made the effort, made the sacrifices, created many inventions. Not just mechanical but also social experiments.

Win or lose, they didn't lounge around their Mommies basement insisting the everyone else sacrifice "Their Lives, Their Fortunes and Their Sacred Honor." So that the likes of C can play at being Cortez or the Pizarro Brothers.

So, once again C. What the fornication & unlawful carnal knowledge are you physically doing yourself? To make human space exploration and conquest possible? On your dime.

Your types always confuse the fevered delusions of cocooned affluenza with self-righteous entitlement.

Piss or get of the pot!

Dec 07, 2017
How many taxpayers is it going to take to subsidize your launch?

Not many. Spaceflight receives around 0.5% of the budget, and this figure will probably not increase anytime soon. Cost efficiency is the key to colonization of space, not wasting enormous amount of money. Reusable rockets are first step towards this goal.

Also, we taxpayers love to fund space exploration, NASA is among the best viewed government agencies, and spending taxpayer funds on high tech such as spaceflight is among the best uses of tax money.

Dec 08, 2017
SmM, I do agree with your commentary. Specifically I criticize the comicbook adventurers.

Who expect everyone else to pay for launching their glorious expeditions to plunder, rape and murder their swashbuckling selves across the stars.

Without displaying the slightest competency at shipbuilding, logistics, technological experience or biological sciences.

So SmM, which research projects do you propose to defund and divert personnel and resources to the fabulous fable of "Conquering Outer Space"?

Actually, if they ever grew up? My suggestion that they bootstrap their own space program with crowdsourcing? Is a valid idea.

First rule: KISS, start with a small drone to orbit. To salvage the litter as a basic resource. Some of that they could sell/trade back to the ISS. Probably some unexpected value to be gathered in analyzing the jetsam.

It would not be unrealistic, that, small step by small step, a private group could patiently, eventually create a colony.

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