NASA finalizes plans for its 2022 mission to explore massive all-metal asteroid thought to be core of a dead planet
- NASA mission to iron asteroid hopes to solve whether or not it’s a planetary core
- Psyche 16 sits between Mars and Jupiter and made entirely of nickel and iron
- The research will give insight into our early solar system and planet formation
- NASA says the mission is entering a design phase and could launch by 2020
NASA is readying for a mission that it hopes will shed light on an asteroid suspected to be the core remnants of a destroyed planet.
According to the agency, the mission, which aims to explore asteroid 16 Psyche, is entering its final design and fabrication phase with a goal of launching by 2022 and an arrival by 2026.
‘With the transition into this new mission phase, we are one big step closer to uncovering the secrets of Psyche, a giant mysterious metallic asteroid, and that means the world to us,’ said Principal Investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton of Arizona State University in Tempe in a statement.
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In this rendering, NASA depicts a spacecraft that is capable of traveling to a distant hunk of iron and nickel that scientists say could be a planetary core.
Asteroid 16 Psyche, which was originally discovered in 1852, orbits the sun between Mars and Jupiter and believed to be the remnants of a protoplanet destroyed by ‘hit-and-run collisions’ when the solar system was forming.
Unlike other rocky or icy bodies, Psyche 16 — which spans 150 miles across — is suspected to be made of mostly iron and nickel, the same materials found in Earth’s own core.
By examining the planet, scientists hope to get a glimpse into the solar system’s nascent past, when massive collisions, like the one that scientists think created Earth, were commonplace.
Using a host of instruments like a gamma ray and neutron spectrometer, the craft will also be taking more precise readings of the planet’s composition and its electromagnetic field.
The goal will be to determine how old the asteroid is and whether it was formed the same way Earth was.
Aside from the primary objective of investigating 16 Psyche, the initiative will also test out a new kind of communications system that uses lasers to encode data in photons rather than radio waves.
The Psyche mission may offer insight into how planets are formed over time and could help solidify inferences about our early solar system.
The system will allows communications between a probe in deep space and Earth and is able to transfer more data at once than other more traditional methods.
While similar objects have been observed throughout the universe, Psyche is uncharacteristically close to Earth, making it ideal for study.
In April, scientists identified one of two known planetary fragments circling a white dwarf. The small celestial object, spotted by researchers at the University of Warwick, is thought to be the remaining core of a planet that was obliterated by the death of its star, white dwarf SDSS J122859.93+104032.9.
The object is about 410 light years away, made up of heavy iron and nickel, and orbits in the constellation Virgo.
Conversely, scientists say the object, which was consumed by its star, may offer a glimpse of what happens once our sun meets the end of its life cycle about give to six billion years from now.
THE METAL WORLD OF 16 PSYCHE
16 Psyche is located in the large asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and may have started as a planet, before it was partially destroyed during the formation of the solar system.
Now, it is a 130 mile (200km) wide chunk of metal, made up of iron, nickel and a number of other rare metals, including gold, platinum and copper.
As such, it offers a unique look into the violent collisions that created Earth and the terrestrial planets.
The mission team seeks to determine whether Psyche is the core of an early planet, how old it is, whether it formed in similar ways to Earth’s core, and what its surface is like.
The spacecraft’s instrument payload will include magnetometers, multispectral imagers, and a gamma ray and neutron spectrometer.
Why are asteroids worth so much?
It may be 230 million miles (370 million km) away from Earth, but this asteroid could be worth a small fortune.
16 Psyche is one of the most mysterious objects in our solar system, and scientists could soon be getting a close-up view thanks to a newly confirmed Nasa mission.
If the asteroid could be transported back to Earth, the iron alone would be worth $10,000 quadrillion (£8,072 quadrillion).
It’s value would be large enough to destroy commodity prices and cause the world’s economy – worth $73.7 trillion (£59.5 trillion) – to collapse.
Dr Elkins-Tanton has calculated that the iron in 16 Psyche alone, would be worth $10,000 quadrillion (£8,072 quadrillion).
Assuming the market for asteroid materials is on Earth, this could cause the value of precious metals to plummet, completely devaluing all holdings including those of governments, and all companies involved in mining, distributing and trading such commodities.