That’s $10 with 18 zeroes after it. Scientists are interested in the metallic composition of the 16 Psyche asteroid
A common element in sci-fi movies is asteroids. We’re either blowing them up, landing on them, living inside them or mining them for profit.
That last cliché might actually become reality in the near future, thanks to one of the latest NASA missions.
The goal is to research 16 Psyche, an asteroid orbiting the sun between Mars and Jupiter. The asteroid has a diameter of about 135 miles, and it’s mostly composed of precious metals, which makes it a veritable treasure trove.
If all its metals (nickel-iron, platinum, iridium and rhenium) would somehow be extracted and sold on Earth, they would fetch a price of $10 quintillion. How much is that? Add 18 zeroes to 10 and you’re there.
Unfortunately, bringing all that bling to Earth is out of the question. First, we still don’t have the technology that would enable us to haul that much mass and land it safely on Earth.
Mining the asteroid and transporting it in chunks may also prove problematic, since we haven’t invented space mines yet.
Finally, even if we found a way to haul it all to Earth, the sudden rise in supply on the market would cause prices to plummet, which would severely affect the bottom line of the space miners and put the long-term profitability of the entire operation into question. That’s why NASA isn’t really considering profits as a main motivation for this mission. Scientists are, nevertheless, interested in the metallic composition of 16 Psyche.
Since its structure closely resembles the one found within planetary nuclei, 16 Psyche might actually be a metallic core of a planet twice its diameter that, for some reason, didn’t finish its formation. Another curiosity is the presence of water, the most likely source of which may be frequent collisions with smaller asteroids containing hydrogen, carbon or ice.
The proposed research would be conducted by using a robotic vehicle, dubbed Psyche orbiter. The spacecraft would orbit the asteroid for six months, studying its topography, gravity, magnetism and other features.
This research is invaluable: Much of what we know about our own planet’s metallic core, which is unreachable below rocky mantles and the crust, is still mainly theoretical. By studying 16 Psyche, which could actually be an exposed planetary core, scientists would gain an unprecedented insight into complex processes associated with the formation of terrestrial planets.
The mission is scheduled for launch in 2022, and the arrival at 16 Psyche is expected in 4.6 years, or in 2026. The entire observation period should last 20 months, and it will include orbiting, mapping and studying the asteroid’s properties.
Read more at MarketWatch.