Here's How NASA's Psyche Will Unlock the Secrets of a Tiny Alien World

And kick off a new cosmic economy.
Grant Currin

NASA’s probe knows where it’s going, but it has no idea what it’s going to find.

That’s the crux of the challenge for Psyche, a spacecraft slated to blast off in 2022. Its target? An asteroid of the same name. Called "16 Psyche," it's one of the 1.1 million to 1.9 million large asteroids we know are in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. But information about 16 Psyche is scant. Scientists know it’s shaped like a potato, and the light that reflects off its surface suggests the asteroid is “unusually rich in metal,” according to a recent press release from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

That makes it an attractive scientific target because it could be a relic of our solar system’s earliest days. The uncertainty is a huge challenge for the mission. Without much information about its density, mass, or spin, the mission team is depending on data from Psyche to plan its encounter with the asteroid.

That data won't just offer a glimpse into the early Solar System — it could also set the stage for asteroid mining.

NASA's Psyche should reach its target by 2026

The first part of Psyche’s mission isn’t subject to so much uncertainty. Assuming everything goes according to plan, the probe will launch from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in August 2022. Once clear of our atmosphere, the first leg of its 1.5-billion-mile (2.4-billion-km) journey will take it near Mars. Nine months after launch, Psyche will use the Red Planet’s gravity to slingshot toward the asteroid. As it approaches its final target, Psyche will use onboard cameras to take high-definition images of the asteroid, which researchers think is roughly 173 miles (280 km) across at its widest point. The craft, which is roughly the length of a tennis court, is scheduled to enter orbit high above the asteroid during January 2026.

From this cosmic promontory roughly 435 miles (700 km) above the asteroid, the craft will collect information to “precisely determine the asteroid's mass, gravity field, rotation, orientation, and wobble,” according to NASA's release. After that phase of the mission is complete, Psyche will use its electric propulsion system to navigate into increasingly tight orbits around the asteroid. It will spend 80 days studying its topography and then 100 days studying its gravity. Eventually, the craft will fly just 53 miles (85 km) above its surface to map the asteroid's elemental makeup. Psyche’s impressive suite of instruments will feature a neuron and gamma-ray spectrometer, a magnetometer, and a multispectral imager.

Psyche will discover where the asteroid came from

Scientists have had their eyes on the asteroid since 1852, when Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis spotted what was just the 16th asteroid ever discovered. Modern astronomers are interested in 16 Psyche because it appears to be made mostly of iron and nickel, two elements that were abundant in the early Solar System. This is the same combination of metals that researchers think lies at the heart of terrestrial planets like Earth. Bafflingly, it's possible that 16 Psyche once resembled Earth in some respects. But scientists think a collision with another object might have stripped the rock away, leaving behind the metallic core. "If it turns out to be part of a metal core, it would be part of the very first generation of early cores in our solar system," Arizona State University planetary scientist and mission leader Lindy Elkins-Tanton said in the press release.

And, incredibly, the huge asteroid could hold more than the history of our solar system. Figures including astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and executives at investment bank Goldman Sachs have pointed to asteroids as an untapped and potentially massive source of mineral resources. Estimates based on the small amount of data that currently exists suggest that 16 Psyche could contain metals worth up to $700 quintillion in value. With that sort of wealth on the line, it’s no wonder that dozens of corporations and companies are lining up for their slice of the asteroid mining pie. The data that NASA's Psyche will send back in 2026 will bring some insight into the history of the solar system and, just maybe, about the coming interplanetary economy.

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