NASA is on the lookout for metal rich asteroids to explore, and this time they’ve hit jackpot. Earlier in 2022, NASA planned to send a mission to 16 Psyche, a 140-mile-wide metallic asteroid “worth an estimated $10,000 quadrillion,” according to The Robb Report. The reason it has a number in front of its name is because it was the sixteenth asteroid ever seen from Earth.
“The rarity…was actually discovered back in 1852, but NASA’s Hubble Telescope has finally given earth-dwellers a closer look. The new study, which was published this week in The Planetary Science Journal, indicates that asteroid’s composition is key to its astronomical value.
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 thought to be the partial core of a small planet that failed to fully form during the earliest days of our solar system.
The metal-rich asteroid is about the size of Massachusetts and shaped somewhat like a potato, according to astronomers. Its average diameter is about 140 miles—or 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.”
NASA wrote, “This continuation/termination review was informed by a project-proposed mission replan and a separate independent review, commissioned in June by NASA and the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, that investigated causes for the delay.
“I appreciate the hard work of the independent review board and the JPL-led team toward mission success,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “The lessons learned from Psyche will be implemented across our entire mission portfolio. I am excited about the science insights Psyche will provide during its lifetime and its promise to contribute to our understanding of our own planet’s core.”
The independent review board is still finalizing its report, which, along with NASA’s response, will be shared publicly once complete.
The mission team continues to complete testing of the spacecraft’s flight software in preparation for the 2023 launch date. The new flight profile is similar to the one originally planned for August 2022, using a Mars gravity assist in 2026 to send the spacecraft on its way to the asteroid Psyche. With an October 2023 launch date, the Psyche spacecraft will arrive at the asteroid in August 2029.
“I’m extremely proud of the Psyche team,” said JPL Director Laurie Leshin. “During this review, they have demonstrated significant progress already made toward the future launch date. I am confident in the plan moving forward and excited by the unique and important science this mission will return.”
NASA selected Psyche in 2017 to investigate a previously unexplored metal-rich asteroid of the same name. It is part of the agency’s Discovery Program, a line of low-cost, competitive missions led by a single principal investigator.”
Space.com noted, “No spacecraft has ever visited an object like 16 Psyche, which is thought to be the exposed core of a demolished planet. The mission, which was originally anticipated to launch in 2022 but was delayed to 2023, is expected to provide important insight into planetary formation.
Along with a mission called Lucy, which launched on Oct. 16, 2021, and will visit primordial asteroids near Jupiter, Psyche was approved in January 2017 as part of NASA’s Discovery Program. “This is what Discovery Program missions are all about — boldly going to places we’ve never been, to enable groundbreaking science,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C., said in a statement(opens in new tab) at the time.
Unlike most bodies in the solar system — which are composed of mainly rock, ice or gas — the Massachusetts-size Psyche is mostly metal. It is up to 95% nickel and iron, a composition similar to that of Earth’s core. That metallic nature makes Psyche a compelling subject of study as researchers speculate about how the asteroid could have formed.
In one hypothetical scenario, Psyche was once part of a protoplanet in the early solar system whose internal layers separated into a rocky mantle and an iron core, according to ASU. Multiple violent collisions billions of years ago may have cracked this entity open and stripped away its exterior, leaving only a misshapen metal lump behind. Much of the Psyche spacecraft’s mission will entail scanning the asteroid for clues that either support or reject this story.”
Researchers will study Psyche using a suite of instruments including multispectral cameras, Gamma Ray and neutron spectrometers (GRNS) and magnetometers.