Scientists have recently unveiled compelling new data about the Psyche asteroid, a celestial object laden with precious metals and valued at an astounding $10,000 quadrillion. NASA’s Psyche Mission launches in October 2023 with the goal of sorting fact from fiction.
This vast wealth theorized by astronomers and mission scientists arises from Psyche’s distinct composition. Most other asteroids contain rocky or icy materials, but metals largely compose Psyche.
Psyche, a 124-mile-wide space rock, dwells within the asteroid belt, a ring of over a million rocks orbiting the sun between Mars and Jupiter.
Some researchers suggest that Psyche might have been the core of a planet in its early development. NASA aims to explore this theory through a mission set to launch this year in October 2023.
Telescopes studied the Psyche asteroid surface
To aid NASA’s mission, researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have created a temperature map of Psyche’s surface. Traditional infrared imaging of asteroids yields a single pixel of data.
However, using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) located in Chile, the team was able to generate a 50-pixel resolution image of Psyche. This offered a more detailed view of its surface.
The higher resolution enabled the team to conclude that Psyche’s surface is at least 30% metal.
The presence of metallic grains scattered throughout the surface rocks suggests this composition.NASA may use this finding to guide their planned observations.
Psyche, also known as Psyche 16, was first discovered in 1852. Researchers believe that Psyche is the remnants of a protoplanet, destroyed by violent collisions during the formation of the solar system. It stands out among celestial bodies due to its suspected composition of mostly iron and nickel, which gives it enormous potential mining value.
Creating a temperature map
Before NASA’s scheduled mission, the Caltech team closely analyzed the millimeter-wavelength emissions from Psyche. This study allowed them to generate the first-ever temperature map of Psyche, offering unprecedented insights into the asteroid’s surface properties.
“The findings are a step toward resolving the mystery of the origin of this unusual object, which has been thought by some to be a chunk of the core of an ill-fated protoplanet,” the study authors explain.
Psyche is the largest known M-Type asteroid. Researchers believe this category of asteroids to be rich in metal and potentially containing fragments of protoplanet cores. The precious metals theory aligns with our understanding of the early solar system as a violent environment where planetary bodies constantly collided and settled into their current orbits.
“Low thermal inertia is typically associated with layers of dust, while high thermal inertia may indicate rocks on the surface,” says Saverio Cambioni, a Caltech researcher. “However, discerning one type of landscape from the other is difficult.”
Researchers Katherine de Kleer, Saverio Cambioni, and Michael Shepard from Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania utilized ALMA’s 66 radio telescopes to map Psyche’s thermal emissions. With each pixel representing an 18-mile by 18-mile area, the map provides much higher resolution data than typically achievable for these asteroid belt rocks.
What the researchers learned
The scientists’ analysis of this data revealed that Psyche’s thermal inertia is higher than that of a typical asteroid. This suggests it has a remarkably dense or conductive surface.
Additionally, the researchers found that Psyche’s thermal emission – the amount of heat it radiates – is 60% of what would be expected from a surface with standard thermal inertia. This finding indicates that metal makes up at least 30% of Psyche’s surface.
Further analysis suggested that metallic grains pepper the surface rocks of Psyche, based on the light it emitted. As de Kleer points out, “We’ve known for many years that objects in this class are not, in fact, solid metal, but what they are and how they formed is still an enigma.”
These findings have given rise to alternative theories about Psyche’s surface composition. One theory posits that it might be a very old asteroid formed closer to the sun, rather than the core of a fragmented protoplanet.
Are there more asteroids like Psyche nearby?
Building upon their success with Psyche, the team plans to apply these techniques to other large objects in the asteroid belt. This research was facilitated by a related project led by Michael Shepard at Bloomsburg University. Shepard’s project combined data from several telescopes to determine Psyche’s size, shape, and orientation.
Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis named the asteroid Psyche after the Greek goddess of the soul. It’s the primary target of NASA’s Psyche mission, which will launch in October and arrive at the asteroid in 2026.
Over 21 months, the spacecraft will use a variety of instruments to study Psyche’s properties and determine whether it is indeed a planetary core or simply a large metal asteroid. The full findings of this research have been published in the Planetary Science Journal.
More about the Psyche Mission
The Psyche Mission is an unprecedented NASA expedition. This bold mission is setting its sights on asteroid 16 Psyche, a massive celestial body made up almost entirely of metal.
The mission holds a unique place in the annals of space exploration, as it aims to study a planetary body unlike any other that we have investigated thus far. 16 Psyche resides in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. It offers potential insights into the violent collisions that created Earth and other terrestrial planets.
The Objectives of the Psyche Mission
The Psyche Mission, targeting the unique metal asteroid 16 Psyche, has four primary scientific objectives:
Determine whether Psyche is a core
The mission aims to understand if 16 Psyche is indeed the exposed core of an early planet. This knowledge would help clarify the processes that went into the formation of terrestrial planets in our solar system.
Identify the age of Psyche
By determining the age of 16 Psyche, scientists can glean insights into the age of the early solar system. This could potentially refine our understanding of solar system evolution.
Investigate the topography of Psyche
The mission seeks to map and characterize the morphology of 16 Psyche. This study will give us detailed knowledge about Psyche’s surface features and structure.
Study Psyche’s elemental composition
By studying the elemental composition of 16 Psyche, the mission can identify the asteroid’s building blocks. This data could provide valuable insights into the constituents of early planetary bodies.
Together, these objectives strive to deepen our understanding of the formative processes of planetary bodies and the history of our solar system.
Spacecraft and Instruments
The Psyche spacecraft and its associated instruments represent a blend of innovative technology and tried-and-true systems proven in the harsh environment of space. Here are the key components of the spacecraft and the onboard scientific instruments:
The spacecraft itself features a high-gain antenna for communication with Earth, enabling the transfer of data collected during the mission. It also includes two solar arrays for power generation, essential for operating in the far reaches of the solar system.
Scientists designed this instrument to capture high-resolution images of 16 Psyche’s surface. It uses a variety of filters to discern the asteroid’s geology and composition.
These images will be critical in achieving the mission’s goals of understanding Psyche’s topography and elemental makeup.
Gamma Ray and Neutron Spectrometer (GRNS)
The GRNS will measure the composition of 16 Psyche. It provides data about the distribution of various elements on the asteroid’s surface, which will offer clues to the asteroid’s origins and formation.
This instrument will measure the remnant magnetic field of 16 Psyche. By studying Psyche’s magnetic field, scientists can learn more about the asteroid’s history, its core formation, and potentially, the processes involved in the creation of planet cores.
X-band Radio Telecommunications System
This system isn’t a scientific instrument in the traditional sense, but it serves a scientific purpose. It will be used to measure Psyche’s gravity field and, in turn, provide insight into its internal structure.
Each of these instruments has a crucial role to play in the Psyche Mission, allowing scientists to gather the data needed to meet the mission’s objectives.
The Psyche Mission’s timeline is meticulously planned to navigate the complexities of space travel and rendezvous with the asteroid 16 Psyche. Here is a detailed look at the timeline:
Mission Announcement (January 2017)
NASA announced the Psyche Mission as part of its Discovery Program, which funds relatively low-cost, focused scientific investigations of the solar system.
Final Design and Assembly (May 2022)
The Psyche spacecraft, now fully assembled, includes solar panels, which fold during transport and launch. When the solar panels are unfolded, the spacecraft spans about 81 feet long (24.76 meters).
This is about the size of a singles tennis court. The body of the spacecraft is about 10 feet long (3.1 meters) and almost 8 feet (2.4 meters) wide.
Launch (October 5-25, 2023)
At the launch site the team conducts an entire re-check of the spacecraft before integrating into the launch vehicle. The launch period for the Psyche spacecraft is October 5-25, 2023. Once in space, the spacecraft travels using solar-electric propulsion.
Mars Flyby (2024)
The Psyche spacecraft is scheduled to perform a gravity assist maneuver using Mars in 2024. This gravity assist will increase the spacecraft’s speed, saving on fuel and shortening the travel time to 16 Psyche.
Arrival at 16 Psyche (2026)
The spacecraft is projected to reach the asteroid 16 Psyche in 2026. Upon arrival, it will commence a 21-month observation period.
Observation Period (2026 – 2027)
During this period, the spacecraft will orbit 16 Psyche at varying distances, mapping and studying the asteroid’s properties. The collected data will contribute to our understanding of this unique metal world and the formative history of the solar system.
This timeline provides a roadmap of the Psyche Mission. It marks significant milestones, from the project’s announcement to the spacecraft’s anticipated arrival at 16 Psyche. Each step contributes to the overall mission’s goal of understanding the nature and history of 16 Psyche. Also, by extension, the early solar system.
Significance of the Psyche Mission
The Psyche Mission holds significant implications for our understanding of the solar system and the potential for future space exploration and resource utilization. Its importance can be highlighted in the following ways:
Uncovering Planetary Formation Processes
The mission’s primary goal is to determine whether 16 Psyche is the exposed metallic core of an early planet. If this is true, studying 16 Psyche will provide us with unprecedented insights into the violent history of collisions and accretion that led to the formation of terrestrial planets.
Illuminating Solar System History
By investigating the age and composition of 16 Psyche, the mission aims to glean crucial insights into the early solar system. This data could help refine our understanding of the processes that have led to the solar system’s current state.
Revealing the Secrets of Planetary Cores
The exploration of 16 Psyche can help us understand the cores of other planets, including Earth, which we can’t observe directly. The insights gleaned can potentially revolutionize our knowledge of planetary interiors.
Potential for Space Resource Utilization
16 Psyche, given its composition, may harbor valuable metals. The knowledge gained from the Psyche mission could open new avenues for asteroid mining. This would provide resources for both on Earth and in-space manufacturing.
In summary, the Psyche Mission’s significance extends from enhancing our understanding of our solar system’s past to potentially paving the way for future space resource utilization. It’s a bold step in our continuing quest to understand our place in the cosmos.
In a journey poised to revolutionize our understanding of planetary formation, the Psyche Mission epitomizes our bold quest for knowledge and exploration. This pioneering endeavor could hold the keys to untold secrets of our solar system.
As we await the first intimate observations of 16 Psyche, we look forward to a future where the depths of space become less of a mystery and more of a testament to our scientific and exploratory prowess.