Psyche, the metal world
3 April 2020 | Written by Alberto Laratro
NASA plans to send a probe to Psyche, an asteroid completely made of metal
Space exploration has reached many records in recent years, from reaching Pluto with the New Horizons spacecraft, landing on a comet with Rosetta and passing through the incredible close-up images of Jupiter taken by Juno. New missions, however, are in preparation, using the words of Captain Picard of Star Trek, “to get where no man has gone before”. Among these, one of the most interesting is a NASA mission that intends to reach an out of the ordinary celestial object: 16 Psyche, an asteroid almost exclusively made of metal that could be the key not only for new acquaintances but also for boundless treasures.
A world of metal. All rocky planets have a metal core, the result of the tumultuous period of formation of the solar system in which, in the planets in formation, the heaviest elements (metals) were falling towards the center of the planet. Psyche is believed to be one of these nuclei which, in the past, was somehow torn from the rest of the planet that was forming around it. With a diameter of 200 km it is an almost completely metal composition (mostly iron and nickel) would have all the credentials to be the heart of a planet now disappeared, or more likely, never completely formed.
A world of riches. It is precisely the materials it is made of (90% metal, the rest a mix of silicates and other elements) that make Psyche a flying treasure. The global technological and electronics industrialist is an insatiable golem. To keep pace with the production of new electronic devices (smartphones, electric cars, batteries, etc.), 170 thousand tons of rare earth are extracted every year, an industry that tramples people and the environment and which, given China’s almost complete monopoly on the production of these resources, it is an easy field of friction in the geopolitical field.
NASA’s mission could be the start of a radical change: Psyche contains an unimaginable amount of metals useful for the earth industry, iron and nickel aside, it is possible to find inside it gold, platinum, neodymium, cobalt and other lands rare for an estimated value of 700 trillion dollars, or 700 followed by 18 zeros, a figure as inconceivable as unattainable, at least for now. The confirmation of Psyche’s mineral wealth could, in fact, accelerate the nascent space mining industry, for now only a little more than ideas and graphics, but nothing concrete.
The real wealth of Psyche, definitely more at hand, is another: the scientific one. Studying this asteroid closely is the most concrete way we have to analyze the nucleus of a planet. It will allow us to better understand the history of our solar system and its formation, leading us to know better also the heart of the Earth, its nature and its functioning.
NASA’s mission, called the Psyche Mission, involves launching a probe to the asteroid in 2022. SpaceX with its Falcon Heavy has already been involved in the operations. After a 4-year journey, the mission will reach Psyche, which orbits the asteroid belt, between Mars and Jupiter, about 500 million km from the Sun.
The spacecraft will have five solar panels, as well as propulsion systems that will allow the spacecraft to navigate and orbit around the asteroid for 20 months. During this period, scientific experiments, currently in the design and manufacturing phase, will study topography, gravity, magnetism and other characteristics of this extraordinary world.
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