A recent study has found that asteroid 16 Psyche, which orbits between Mars and Jupiter, could be made entirely of metal and is worth an estimated $10,000 quadrillion — more than the entire economy of Earth. New images from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope offer a closer view of the mysterious asteroid 16 Psyche, whose surface may mostly comprise iron and nickel, similar to the Earth’s core, according to the study published in The Planetary Science Journal on Monday.
In fact, scientists believe that the asteroid may be the leftover core of an earlier planet that lost its crust and mantle after multiple collisions during the creation of our solar system.
The exact composition and origins of the asteroid will be uncovered in 2022, when NASA sends an unmanned spacecraft to study it up close. But the latest data has revealed a clearer picture of Asteroid 16 Psyche than ever before. Here is everything you need to know about the asteroid and the new study.
Located around 370 million kilometres away from Earth, asteroid 16 Psyche is one of the most massive objects in the asteroid belt in our solar system. The somewhat potato-shaped asteroid has a diameter of around 140 miles, according to NASA.
It was first discovered on March 17, 1853, by the Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis and was named after the ancient Greek goddess of the soul, Psyche.
Unlike most asteroids that are made up of rocks or ice, scientists believe that Psyche is a dense and largely metallic object thought to be the core of an earlier planet that failed in formation.
In the latest study, researchers at the Southwest Research Institute observed the asteroid through the Hubble Space Telescope at two specific points in its rotation to view both sides of it completely. The study also involved the first ultraviolet observation of Psyche, offering a clearer picture of the asteroid’s composition for the first time.
“We’ve seen meteorites that are mostly metal, but Psyche could be unique in that it might be an asteroid that is totally made of iron and nickel,” the author of the study Dr. Tracy Becker said in a statement.
The scientists noted that the manner in which ultraviolet light was reflected from Psyche was very similar to the way in which iron reflects sunlight.
“We were able to identify for the first time on any asteroid what we think are iron oxide ultraviolet absorption bands,” Becker said. “This is an indication that oxidation is happening on the asteroid, which could be a result of the solar wind hitting the surface.”
The term ‘solar wind’ refers to a stream of charged particles emitted from the sun’s hot outer atmosphere, which is known as its Corona.
However, the researchers pointed out that the presence of even a minute amount of iron can dominate UV observations.
Metal asteroids are not commonly found in the solar system, and scientists believe that studying 16 Psyche may offer a rare glimpse of what the inside of a planet really looks like.
“To understand what really makes up a planet and to potentially see the inside of a planet is fascinating. Once we get to Psyche, we’re really going to understand if that’s the case, even if it doesn’t turn out as we expect. Any time there’s a surprise, it’s always exciting,” Beck said. 📣 Express Explained is now on Telegram
NASA scientists believe that the asteroid is made up of almost entirely of iron, nickel and several other rare materials like gold, platinum, cobalt, iridium and rhenium. Hypothetically, if it was to be transported to Earth, NASA Psyche mission’s lead scientist Lindy Elkins-Tanton has calculated that the iron alone would be worth more than $10,000 quadrillion.
But in an interview with CNN, Elkins-Tanton clarified that there was no way for the asteroid to actually be brought back to Earth. “We cannot bring Psyche back to Earth. We have absolutely no technology to do that,” she said.
If the asteroid was somehow brought to our planet and its resources were mined, it could possibly result in a collapse of the markets, she pointed out.
“There are all kinds of problems with this, but it’s still fun to think about what a piece of metal the size of Massachusetts would be worth,” the scientist added.
Scientists will only learn about the true composition of asteroid 16 Psyche if it is studied up close. NASA plans to do just that two years from now, when it will launch a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida to orbit the asteroid for around 21 months.
The unmanned spacecraft will reach the asteroid in January, 2026. The first objective of the mission is to capture a photograph of the metallic asteroid, after which the spacecraft will study and map it from a distance.
Another objective of the mission, led by Arizona State University, is to determine whether the asteroid is, in fact, the core of an earlier planet or if it is merely made up of unmelted material. Based on the data collected, scientists will also ascertain the age and origins of the mammoth metallic asteroid.
The mission was originally slated to take place in 2023, but was later moved up to 2022.