NASA is preparing to explore and analyze an asteroid that could be the ancient core of an early planet.
The Psyche spacecraft will launch later this year and perform a gravity assist around Mars in 2023 before reaching the asteroid 16 Psyche in 2026.
16 Psyche is a large, metal-rich asteroid that was once estimated to contain $700 quintillion worth of heavy metals, though newer readings suggest this may have been wildly overestimated. In any case, there's only one way to truly find out: analyze the asteroid on location.
Still, the Psyche mission team has just provided a highly-detailed map of the asteroid's surface properties to give a better idea of what the mission may uncover, an MIT News report reveals.
16 Psyche: 'Metal-rich asteroids are interesting, enigmatic worlds'
In a paper published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, the team presents their map, which was developed via a combination of observations taken by a large array of ground telescopes in northern Chile, and state-of-the-art simulations.
The map shows large metal-rich regions of the asteroid, as well as a large indentation that appears to have a different surface texture, which could be a crater filled with sand, according to the scientists behind the new study.
It suggests Psyche has surprisingly varied properties. The rocky regions are suggestive of the remains of an ancient mantle, similar to that of Earth, while craters containing metallic material lend weight to the theory that the asteroid experienced eruptions of metallic lava when its ancient core cooled down.
"Psyche's surface is very heterogeneous," explained lead author Saverio Cambioni, the Crosby Distinguished Postdoctoral Fellow in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS). "It's an evolved surface, and these maps confirm that metal-rich asteroids are interesting, enigmatic worlds. It's another reason to look forward to the Psyche mission going to the asteroid."
Mapping 16 Psyche at a resolution of 20 miles per pixel
The researchers used the combined power of the 66 radio antennas of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in northern Chile to map 16 Psyche at a resolution of approximately 20 miles per pixel.
To put that into perspective, TheSkyLive currently says 16 Psyche is located more than 502 million kilometers (roughly 3.35 Astronomical Units) from Earth. Light takes 27 minutes and 56 seconds to reach us from the asteroid, which is located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
The scientists behind the new study used observations made by ALMA on June 19, 2019, to develop a simulation comparing thermal emissions with the most likely materials to emit the readings observed by ALMA.
"The signals of the ALMA antennas can be combined into a synthetic signal that’s equivalent to a telescope with a diameter of 16 kilometers (10 miles)," co-author Katherine de Kleer, assistant professor of planetary science and astronomy at Caltech, explained. "The larger the telescope, the higher the resolution."
The scientists ran hundreds of simulations to obtain the map they presented in their new study. "We ran these simulations area by area so we could catch differences in surface properties," Cambioni explained.
Once it reaches its destination in 2026, the Psyche spacecraft will spend roughly two years orbiting and taking readings of Psyche's surface. The new study provides a detailed guide of what scientists on the mission should look out for.
Once there, the spacecraft will finally reveal whether 16 Psyche really does contain an incredible wealth of heavy metals. Prospective space mining organizations will no doubt be eager to learn the results. Besides confirming whether vast riches are floating in Psyche's region of space, the mission will also provide a wealth of knowledge with new insight into the role asteroids play in early planetary formation.