NASA is targeting the asteroid belt, including a bizarre metal planet
Deep in the asteroid belt, there’s a bizarre object unlike any other we know, on a lonely orbit around the sun. The asteroid known as 16 Psyche is almost entirely metal, mostly iron-nickel, and it has astronomers salivating over it. It’s also now on NASA’s docket, with a plan to launch a mission in 2023 to go there.
The mission to Psyche was selected as one of two missions recently selected to help us gain a better understanding of how the solar system was created.
NASA received 23 submissions for mission proposals. It then selected five finalists, awarding them all with $3 million to develop their proposal, before eventually accepting two of the projects. Each is expected to cost around $500 million and take at least 10-20 years or more to complete.
The Psyche mission will launch in 2023 and reach its destination in 2030. The asteroid is made of iron and nickel, which is similar to what the Earth’s core is made of. With our current level of technology, it’s actually easier to send a probe deep into space than to reach the core of our own planet.
The entire asteroid has a diameter of just 130 miles or so. There are several theories that it could have been part of a planet roughly the size of Mars that was destroyed by a collision billions of years ago. By studying it, scientists hope to gain a better understanding of how layers are formed on a planet.
“This is an opportunity to explore a new type of world – not one of rock or ice, but of metal,” said Psyche Principal Investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton of Arizona State University in Tempe. “16 Psyche is the only known object of its kind in the solar system, and this is the only way humans will ever visit a core. We learn about inner space by visiting outer space.”
The second mission selected is known as Lucy, a robotic spacecraft set to launch in 2021. Its mission has several stops. Its first destination is an object in the asteroid belt, which the probe will pass by in 2025. In 2027, it will then begin its primary mission of exploring the Jupiter Trojan asteroids – two swarms of asteroids caught by Jupiter’s gravity. One swarm leads the planet in its orbit, while the other follows.
The current theory is that these objects are from an early point in our solar system. They may have formed elsewhere and then been caught by Jupiter.
“Lucy will visit a target-rich environment of Jupiter’s mysterious Trojan asteroids, while Psyche will study a unique metal asteroid that’s never been visited before,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “This is what Discovery Program missions are all about – boldly going to places we’ve never been to enable groundbreaking science.”
While the primary goal of each mission will be to help us understand how the solar system was formed, there is another potential reason that many are excited for them: mining.
It’s almost inevitable at this point that eventually humanity will head to the solar system for resources – including metals like iron and nickel. These mission destinations may help to give us a better understanding of where we should focus our interplanetary mining efforts, and how we may go about it.
“These are true missions of discovery that integrate into NASA’s larger strategy of investigating how the solar system formed and evolved,” said NASA’s Planetary Science Director Jim Green. “We’ve explored terrestrial planets, gas giants, and a range of other bodies orbiting the sun. Lucy will observe primitive remnants from farther out in the solar system, while Psyche will directly observe the interior of a planetary body. These additional pieces of the puzzle will help us understand how the sun and its family of planets formed, changed over time, and became places where life could develop and be sustained – and what the future may hold.”