When observing Psyche from Earth, the celestial body appears as a fuzzy blur. But by observing light reflected off it, scientists hypothesize the asteroid may be unusually rich in metal. The core is thought to be made up of exposed metallic iron, nickel, and gold, based on casual observations made on Earth, reports Jamie Carter for Forbes. First discovered by Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis in 1852, the celestial body is suspected to be the core of a shattered planetesimal, a planet-forming building block.
Visible and infrared wavelength measurements on Earth suggest the metal-rich asteroid is shaped like a potato, according to a statement by NASA. Dubbed an M-type asteroid for its potentially high concentration of metal, Psyche has a diameter of 140 miles, or the distance between Los Angeles and San Diego, California. The asteroid has a five-year orbital period, but it completes rotations every four hours, so a Psyche "day" is actually rather short. If found to indeed be made of metal and confirmed to be a planetesimal, Psyche could reveal what the inside of planets like Earth look like underneath the layers of mantle and crust, and further help researchers understand how the solar system formed, per a statement.
NASA’s Psyche mission, set to launch in August 2022, will orbit an area in space that astronomers can barely spot from Earth and have never reached before. If the asteroid’s riches are confirmed, it may be worth more than the global economy at $10 quintillion, per Forbes. That total may sound like a lot, but Psyche actually tails behind Davida, which is valued at an estimated $27 quintillion, reported Business Insider in June 2021.
“If it turns out to be part of a metal core, it would be part of the very first generation of early cores in our solar system,” Lindy Elkins-Tanton, a planetary scientist from Arizona State University, who leads the NASA Psyche mission, said in a statement. “But we don’t really know, and we won’t know anything for sure until we get there. We wanted to ask primary questions about the material that built planets. We’re filled with questions and not a lot of answers. This is real exploration.”
Nine months after the Psyche spacecraft launches from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center this summer, the orbiter will travel past Mars and use the Red Planet's gravity to slingshot itself towards the asteroid, per a statement. After it arrives in 2026, the spacecraft will spend 21 months mapping and studying the asteroid from 435 miles above its surface. Instruments aboard the Psyche orbiter include a magnetometer that will determine if the asteroid has a magnetic field and various imagers to photograph and map the asteroid's surface, Forbes reports. In total, the space odyssey will cover a whopping 1.5 billion miles.
“We don’t know what we’re going to find,” says Elkins-Tanton to Forbes. “I’m expecting us to be entirely surprised.”