For years, scientists and treasure hunters have had their sights on an extremely rare metallic asteroid located between Mars and Jupiter, because it has an estimated worth of $10,000 quadrillion, which is more than the entire global economy.
A new study published this week in The Planetary Science Journal takes a deeper look at the asteroid, dubbed "16 Psyche," and offers the first ultraviolet (UV) observations of the asteroid.
16 Psyche is one of the largest objects in the solar system's main asteroid belt orbiting between Mars and Jupiter, which is located an estimated 230 million miles from Earth. According to scientists, the asteroid is roughly 140 miles in diameter, which is about the same size as Massachusetts.
— CNN International (@cnni) October 31, 2020
Most asteroids are made of rocks or ice, but 16 Psyche is dense and mostly made of metal. Some researchers suspect that these metals are the leftover core of a "protoplanet" or a planet that stopped before becoming fully formed. The new study revealed that the asteroid could be made entirely out of iron and nickel.
Dr. Tracy Becker, the lead author of the study, said that these metals could be evidence of a protoplanet.
"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. Earth has a metal core, a mantle and crust. 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," Becker said.
Hubble’s ultraviolet observations are providing new, more complete views of the massive, metallic asteroid Psyche. Studying Psyche might help us learn more about the cores of planets! From @SwRI: https://t.co/tP9I58CV9G
(Image courtesy of Maxar/ASU/P. Rubin/NASA/JPL-Caltech) pic.twitter.com/03DrkP06WW
— Hubble (@NASAHubble) October 26, 2020
"We were able to identify for the first time on any asteroid what we think are iron oxide ultraviolet absorption bands. This is an indication that oxidation is happening on the asteroid, which could be a result of the solar wind hitting the surface," Becker added.
In 2022, NASA plans to launch the unmanned spacecraft Psyche on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket to study the asteroid, where researchers expect it to land in 2026.
"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," Becker said.
In 2017, when the asteroid was first discovered, researchers promised that they are not looking to pillage the asteroid for resources, but are more interested in learning about how planets are formed. It is unclear how long such pure intentions will last with so much money at stake.