Since NASA has announced plans for its upcoming mission launch in 2022, the world has been getting psyched to meet Psyche. But this isn’t Cupid’s lover who was killed by Venus and then made immortal by Jupiter in ancient Roman mythology – it’s a rare type of asteroid that may have a story of destruction – and now, resurrection – of its own.
One of the asteroids in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, 16-Psyche is unique in that it is an M-type asteroid, meaning that it’s made of metal rather than ice or rock. This will be the first metallic world that NASA has visited, and though this is an information-gathering mission to gather valuable data, speculators are looking at the asteroid with an eye to its potential monetary value: its iron, if it could be extracted, would be worth $10 quintillion – that $10,000 quadrillion, or $10,000,000 trillion. The current value of world economy is only around $74 trillion, meaning that 16 Psyche is worth more than 135,000 times the value of all the money in the world.
In other words, this asteroid isn’t going to crash into Earth, but it could potentially crash the world’s economic system.
Project leaders don’t see that as a likely outcome however, and maintain that the mission is for learning purposes only. Still, a former NASA worker has reported that space mining is a capability with their current technologies, and we can expect to see it happening within the next few decades. The government of Luxembourg has already established a space mining fund, and the company Planetary Resources first announced asteroid mining plans back in 2012.
Psyche is one the ten most massive asteroids, containing 1% of the total mass of the asteroid belt. Its diameter is about 140 miles – roughly the size of Massachusetts, and it is irregularly shaped. It orbits the sun in five earth years, but completes a full rotation on its axis (one Psyche day) in four earth hours.
NASA’s Psyche spacecraft will launch in August 2022 and land in early 2026, receiving a gravity boost from Mars in 2023. This will be NASA’s first visit to the asteroid, which was discovered by Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis in 1852.
There are several other “firsts” with this mission: along with being the first visit to an M-type asteroid, the Psyche spacecraft will also use a new form of propulsion technology, which uses electrical energy from solar panel arrays. During flight it will also be using a communication system that uses laser light rather than radio waves.
The stated goal of the mission is to get a better understanding of the asteroid, starting with its topography. Below is an artist’s rendering of Psyche may look like, however scientists have admitted that they don’t really know yet what to expect, as impacts into metal could look much different than impacts into rock and ice.
Because it is a rare metallic asteroid, Psyche is thought to be the exposed iron/nickel core of an earlier planet which may have been as large as Mars, after a violent collision destroyed the planet and stripped away its mantle. The mission will use sophisticated measuring tools to examine and confirm the possibility that Psyche is indeed a core of a protoplanet. Then, by having an isolated core to study, it may give scientists a better understanding of Earth’s core, as they currently have no way to access or measure Earth’s core directly.
Additionally, scientists are looking for evidence of the asteroid’s past magnetic field, which may also show the exciting possibility that there were once sulphuric volcanoes on the asteroid.
So, although this is not a commodity mining mission, the information gathered could be valuable on its own – whether it is used for space mining or just a better understanding of ourselves. As lead scientist of the mission Lindy Elkins-Tanton said: “We learn about inner space by visiting outer space.”
Interestingly, in Greek, Psyche means “soul”, and the asteroid’s icon is a semi-circle and a star to represent a butterfly wing, which is a symbol of the soul.