Funky asteroid Psyche is made almost completely of metal

In 2022, a SpaceX Falcon Heavy will launch a NASA spacecraft to explore the distant asteroid Psyche, sitting in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. But this is no ordinary asteroid: A new study finds that it is almost completely composed of metal.

The asteroid is 140 miles in diameter, making it one of the largest asteroids in the belt. And although previous research had suggested it was primarily made of metal, the new researcher performed using the Hubble Space Telescope indicates it has an even more extreme composition than previously realized.

“We’ve seen meteorites that are mostly metal, but Psyche could be unique in that it might be an asteroid that is totally made of iron and nickel,” Dr. Tracy Becker, lead author and a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute, said in a statement.

An artist’s concept of the asteroid Psyche, which lies in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
An artist’s concept of the asteroid Psyche, which lies in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. NASA / JPL-Caltech / ASU

Such a large chunk of metal would be extremely valuable if it were here on Earth, which has lead to Psyche being dubbed the “$10,000 quadrillion asteroid.” However, the researchers emphasize that there is no way to bring the resources back to Earth and that the aim of the mission is scientific discovery, not mining.

The asteroid is of importance to scientific research because it could teach us about how planets like Earth developed. The researchers think that Psyche might have been in the early stages of becoming a planet at one point.

“Earth has a metal core, a mantle and crust,” Becker said. “It’s possible that as a Psyche protoplanet was forming, it was struck by another object in our Solar System and lost its mantle and crust.”

So studying the object can teach us more about planetary development, as Becker explained: “What makes Psyche and the other asteroids so interesting is that they’re considered to be the building blocks of the solar system. To understand what really makes up a planet and to potentially see the inside of a planet is fascinating. Once we get to Psyche, we’re really going to understand if that’s the case, even if it doesn’t turn out as we expect. Any time there’s a surprise, it’s always exciting.”

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