NASA is preparing to launch a mission to a unique asteroid called Psyche. This may actually be the exposed metallic core of what was once a young planet. The mission, also known as Psyche, is scheduled to launch on October 5th.
Asteroid Psyche takes about five Earth years to orbit the sun, and its closest approach to Earth is about three times the distance between Earth and Mars. Because of its distance and relatively small size (less than 300 kilometers in diameter at its widest point), we have few observations of it and know almost nothing about its surface, its origin, or even its composition.
What we do know is that it’s probably almost entirely metal, most likely iron. The potential value of all that metal has made headlines, but bringing it back to Earth is not in the mission’s remit. “We don’t have the technology to bring this back, and even if we did manage to bring it back to Earth, it would probably be a fatal mistake for Earth, because we don’t know how to park something in orbit. Because we don’t know,” says Psyche. Linda Elkins Tanton at Arizona State University. “This asteroid is solely for scientific exploration, not for commercial purposes.”
Since we know very little about Psyche, There are almost no limits to what we can discover. We had never even seen this type of object up close before. Even our limited idea of what Psyche is has recently changed, thanks to remote sensing that suggests it may contain more silicate minerals than previously expected.
“Who knows what it looks like? We literally have no idea,” Elkins-Tanton says. Its surface will certainly look different from the rocky asteroids we’ve seen before, she says. “When you make metal craters in the lab, something strange happens. You see all these metal ball bearing spikes and sand all over the ground, cliffs, and cliffs, unlike anything we see in the rocky world. You might see it.”
Metallic objects like Psyche could be important elements in the formation of rocky worlds like ours. Earth and other terrestrial planets have iron cores, but because they are deep underground, they have not been able to be studied in detail until now. The Psyche mission may be our first chance to look directly into a planet’s core.
“As a species, we’re very attached to rocky planets, but the one missing ingredient we haven’t been able to examine up close is a metallic core,” says Elkins-Tanton. “It’s like I’m making a cake and I’ve never met an egg before. Now I’m going to meet an egg.”
If all goes well with the launch, the spacecraft is scheduled to arrive at Psyche in 2029. The spacecraft has four scientific instruments on board. A camera, a spectrometer to measure the composition of the asteroid, a magnetometer to study the magnetic field, and a communications system. It also serves as a way to measure Psyche’s gravitational field and internal structure. Hopefully, these devices will help us learn what exactly Psyche is, how it formed, and how it relates to the iron core at the center of the Earth. will tell us.