A metallic asteroid, possibly worth more than the entire economy of our planet was located drifting between Mars and Jupiter recently by the Hubble Telescope.
Asteroid was named “Psyche”, which is a diameter of about 140 miles. That’s roughly the same size as Massachusetts.
Although the exact composition of Psyche is still uncertain, scientists think it’s possible the asteroid is mostly made of iron and nickel. It’s been assumed that a piece of iron of its size could be worth about $10,000 quadrillion.
“We looked at the way that the ultraviolet light reflected off of the asteroid surface. The way the ultraviolet light was reflected from Psyche was very, very similar to the way iron reflects sunlight,” Tracy Becker told CNN. She is the lead author of the study and a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute.
Studying Psyche could help us better understand those early times in the history of our solar system, when objects would have had “higher inclinations and crazier eccentricities,” and would have had more opportunities to collide with each other, Becker told CNN.
“If Psyche is the metal core of a planet that never was, studying it more closely could tell us a lot about the core of our planet, which we wouldn’t be able to explore,” Becker said.
“The study also detected two possible signals of changes to the surface of Psyche due to solar winds. The first one was that as we went deeper into the UV, we started to see the asteroid get brighter, which is pretty rare,” Becker added.
The second signal, according to Becker, was the detection of iron oxide ultraviolet absorption bands.
“That could be implying that there is some sort of interaction with oxygen and the metal,” Becker said.
“We’re building space hardware and getting ready for our launch in August of 2022,” Lindy Elkins-Tanton, a planetary scientist who is the principal investigator for the mission, told CNN. Elkins-Tanton is also a minor author of the new study.
The mission’s launch, originally slated for 2023, was moved up to 2022 and will take place from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, using a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket.
The unmanned spacecraft should reach Psyche by January 2026, and it will be orbiting the asteroid for 21 months, mapping it and studying it from a distance, Elkins-Tanton explained.
When it gets to Psyche, the mission will be the first to ever photograph the asteroid.
Scientists plan on making these images immediately available for everyone on Earth to see and study further, possibly within 30 minutes of taking them, Elkins-Tanton said.
“Does [Psyche] have oxygen mixed into it, the way this study has indicated it might have some? Or other light elements, like sulfur, or even potassium, mixed into the metal phase? Can we say something about the temperature and pressure conditions under which it formed, based on its composition, that would tell us something about the size of the body it came from, and the sorts of things that went into making up our Earth?”
“One thing we can pretty much promise right now is that Psyche is going to surprise us,” Elkins-Tanton said.
“Everything we know about it now is probably going to be wrong when we go there and find out.”
While the conversation on mining asteroids for resources is developing here on Earth, Psyche is not the target we should strive for, according to Elkins-Tanton.
“We cannot bring Psyche back to Earth. We have absolutely no technology to do that,” Elkins-Tanton said.
Even if it was possible to bring back metal from Psyche without destroying the Earth, that would quite possibly collapse the markets, Elkins-Tanton said.
“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.”
Objects that are closer to Earth are more realistic candidates for space mining, according to Elkins-Tanton. One of the most interesting ideas is to use asteroids as a source of water, which can be made into rocket fuel.
“Most of the nearest asteroids don’t have water ice on them, but they do have minerals that contain water bound up in their crystal lattices,” and that could be accessed by heating up the minerals, Elkins-Tanton explained.
“They could almost be like little refueling stations,” she said.
“This is a bit ahead of ourselves in terms of what we can actually do, but I love it because it shows how aspirational people can be, and it shows how powerful our imaginations are,” Elkins-Tanton told CNN.
“To me, that’s the great strength of space exploration — it gives us that motivation to do great things,” she added.