As NASA eyes asteroid Psyche, scientists question how metal it really is


NASA’s upcoming Psyche mission should provide some answers about this mysterious, iron-rich world.

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An artist’s illustration shows what asteroid 16 Psyche might look like.

You may have heard of asteroid 16 Psyche thanks to an eye-popping monetary figure that is associated with it: $10,000 quadrillion. It is an imaginary number based on the assumption that it is primarily made of metal, a substance for which we pay hefty sums here on Earth. We may need to rethink that hypothetical value a bit.

The asteroid – which is 140 miles (226 kilometers) wide – was first discovered in 1852. A new study led by University of Arizona researchers suggests that 16 psi may not be as metallic and dense as previous estimates.

NASA has said that Psyche “appears to be the exposed nickel-iron core of an early planet, one of the building blocks of our solar system.” Previous analysis of the asteroid had estimated it to be as much as 95% metal. The new paper, published in The Planetary Science journal, places 82.5% of the metal with a much lower density than thought.

It’s possible 16 Psyche is like another famous asteroid: Bennu. Bennu is a pile of rubble that was Visited by NASA’s Osiris-Rex Mission, which snagged a sample to be brought back to Earth. If 16 Psyche is similar to Bennu, it may call into question the possible origin story that it is the intact core of an early planet.

“Manassas as a rubble pile would be very unpredictable, but our data continue to show estimates of low density despite its high metal content,” lead author David Cantillo, an undergraduate at the university, said in a statement Wednesday.

The team took an unusually practical approach to assessing the composition of the asteroid. The group “recreated 16 Psyche’s regolith — or loose rocky surface material — in a laboratory by mixing different materials and analyzing light patterns until they matched telescope observations of the asteroid.” The results suggest that Psyche may have experienced collisions with other asteroids that then left a layer of deposits on its surface.

The good news is that we can expect some concrete answers to the questions surrounding the psyche. NASA is sending a mission to see it. SpaceX signed on to launch the Psyche spacecraft with a targeted takeoff in July 2022.

If the new study on the asteroid’s makeup is correct, it doesn’t make Psyche any less attractive or less worthy of study. “The opportunity to study an exposed core of a planet is extremely rare, which is why they’re sending spacecraft missions there,” Cantilo said, “but our work shows that 16 Manas is a lot more interesting than expected. is.”

What about dollar figures? This is an exercise in imagination, because we are not going to take the psyche back to Earth to melt it. But according to the University of Arizona, “the new findings may slightly devalue the iron-rich asteroid.”

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