This rare asteroid may be worth 70,000 times the world's economy.  Now NASA is sending a spacecraft to explore it.

This rare asteroid may be worth 70,000 times the world’s economy. Now NASA is sending a spacecraft to explore it.

NASA’s mission to an asteroid that could be worth 70,000 times the world’s economy is set to begin this year.

The space agency decided in 2017 that humanity would benefit from closer examination of 16 Psyches. The Psyche mission was originally scheduled to take place in late 2022 but was delayed due to “development issues”. NASA now plans to launch the Psyche spacecraft in October. The ship is expected to reach the ultra-precious asteroid in August 2029.

Here’s everything we know so far about Asteroid Psyche, the upcoming Psyche mission, and the Psyche spacecraft.

What is 16 Psyche?

Artist’s impression of asteroid 16 Psyche.

Makhar/ASU/P. Rubin/NASA/JPL-Calt

Named after the Greek goddess of the soul, Psyche was discovered by Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis on March 17, 1852. The giant M-type asteroid is believed to be the partial core of a small planet that n failed to fully form in the first few days. of our solar system.

The metal-rich asteroid is about the size of Massachusetts and shaped like a potato, astronomers say. Its average diameter is about 140 miles, roughly the distance between Los Angeles and San Diego. The asteroid orbits between Mars and Jupiter at a distance ranging from 235 million to 309 million miles from the Sun. (You can get a real-time simulated view of Psyche here.)

A study published by The Journal of Planetary Science in 2020 suggests that Psyche is almost entirely composed of iron and nickel. This metallic composition sets it apart from other asteroids which are usually made of rock or ice, and could suggest that it was originally part of a planetary core. This wouldn’t just represent a breakthrough discovery, it’s key to Psyche’s potential astronomical value: NASA scientist Lindy Elkins-Tanton has calculated that the iron in the asteroid alone could be worth up to 10,000 quadrillions of dollars (yes, you read that right). For context, the entire global economy is worth around $110 trillion at the time of writing. However, more recent research from the University of Arizona suggests that the asteroid may not be as metallic or dense as once thought. According to the research, Psyche may actually be closer to a pile of rubble than an exposed planetary core. If true, that would devalue the asteroid. NASA’s next mission should settle the Pysche composition debate once and for all.

Of course, Psyche isn’t the only precious rock in space. NASA has previously said that the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter holds mineral wealth equivalent to about $100 billion for every person on Earth. The hardest part is extracting the precious metals from each asteroid and successfully bringing them back to earth. Then you have the whole conundrum of supply and demand that could drive the price of certain metals up or down. We’ll leave the complexities of space mining for another day.

Why is NASA going to 16 Psyche?

NASA Psyche spacecraft

NASA’s Psyche spacecraft in December 2022.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

If Psyche is, in fact, the remnant core of a planet that never properly formed, she could reveal secrets about Earth’s own core. The interior of terrestrial planets is normally hidden under the mantle and crust, but Psyche has no such outer layers. The asteroid’s mantle and crust were likely torn apart by multiple violent collisions during the early formation of our solar system. By examining Psyche, we can better understand how the Earth’s core came to be. The mission could also provide information about the formation of our solar system and planetary systems around other stars.

According to NASA, this marks humanity’s first exploration of a world made up largely of metal. The Psyche spacecraft will use special tools to identify the types of materials that make up the asteroid. Is it really iron and nickel, for example? Or something else? The craft will also measure Psyche’s gravity and magnetic field and determine the asteroid’s topography. All this will tell us more about the history and evolution of the formation of Psyche.

What is the Psyche spaceship and how does it work?

Technicians from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida perform work on the agency's Psyche spacecraft inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHSF) on May 3, 2022. Inside the PHSF, the spacecraft will undergo routine treatment and maintenance before launch.  Psyche aims to lift off aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket on August 1, 2022. The spacecraft will use solar-electric propulsion to travel approximately 1.5 billion miles to rendezvous with its namesake asteroid in 2026. Psyche's mission is led by Arizona State University.  NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is managed for the agency by Caltech in Pasadena, California, is responsible for overall mission management, system engineering, integration and testing, as well as mission operations.  Maxar Technologies in Palo Alto, Calif., provided the chassis for the high-powered solar-electric powered spacecraft.  NASA's Launch Services Program (LSP), based in Kennedy, is managing the launch.  Psyche will be the 14th mission of the agency's Discovery program and the 100th main mission of LSP.

Technicians at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida perform work on Psyche.

NASA/Isaac Watson

Measuring 10 feet by 8 feet, Psyche is a bit larger than a smart car. Instead of running on traditional rocket fuel, the spacecraft will produce its own solar power. It is equipped with large solar panels, which make it as big as a tennis court when deployed, which will generate electricity to power the ion engine and the innovative new Hall thruster. Essentially electricity from the solar panels is used to convert the fuel source (xenon gas) into xenon ions which are expelled to provide thrust. (The Xenon Thruster also produces a cool blue glow.) Pysche will gradually increase its speed using ion propulsion. The spacecraft will also pass Mars for a gravitational boost on its journey to the asteroid.

Additionally, Psyche will be equipped with an array of futuristic technologies. The spacecraft will test something called “Deep Space Optical Communication,” in which messages are encoded on photons (particles of light) instead of radio waves. That could mean transmitting a lot more data back to Earth in a given amount of time.

The craft will also include a gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer to identify types of materials in Psyche; a magnetometer to measure the asteroid’s magnetic field; and a multispectral imager to capture high-resolution snapshots. To top it off, Psyche will use radio waves to measure the asteroid’s gravity. This, combined with maps of the asteroid’s surface features, should give us more information about the asteroid’s interior structure.

How much will the Psyche mission cost?

NASA Psyche spacecraft

The solar electric propulsion (SEP) chassis of NASA’s Psyche spacecraft.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA says the total lifecycle mission cost of Psyche (including the rocket) is $985 million. A total of $717 million was spent on the project last July. That sounds like a pittance compared to that $10,000 quadrillion.

How long will the Psyche mission last?

NASA Psyche spacecraft

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

Psyche will travel some 280 million kilometers to reach its eponymous asteroid. The spacecraft is slated to launch on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket in October 2023. The craft will aim for gravity assist from Mars in 2026 to aid in the next leg of the journey. It will then spend 21 months measuring and mapping, gradually tightening its orbit until it passes just above the surface of Psyche. If all goes according to plan, Psyche will arrive at the asteroid in August 2029. NASA says the mission team is continuing to complete testing of the spacecraft’s flight software in preparation for the launch date of october. Fair winds, Psyche.

Check out a NASA video on the Psyche mission below:


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