NASA is gearing up to launch a spacecraft on a six-year journey to research a very unique asteroid that seems to be mainly made up of metal.
The principal investigator for the mission, Lindy Elkins-Tanton, stated that“this will be our first time visiting a world that has a metal surface,” explaining how previous NASA missions mainly looked at “worlds made of rock or ice or gas,” according to NPR.
The asteroid itself in this specific mission is named “Psyche,” and could help scientists understand exactly how violent collisions and space events in our solar system’s initial years of creation led to the formation of our planets. Many planets in our solar system, including Earth, have metal-rich cores, so the asteroid could provide some further insight into that history.
Psyche was discovered in 1852, and according to Elkins-Tanton, it’s likely the size of the state of Massachusetts and shaped like a potato. Researchers believe that the asteroid is about 30 to 60 percent metal.
Once the spacecraft arrives at the asteroid in August 2029, it will be able to send images back to NASA so they can see what Psyche looks like, because as of right now, “we do not know what Psyche looks like,” according to Elkins-Tanton.
The probe will blast off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on a SpaceX rocket and will have its initial opportunity to launch on Thursday morning.
“Researchers believe the asteroid might have craters that are ringed with iron spikes, because an impact might send up streams of molten metal that then solidify. The asteroid might also have huge metal cliffs, and the remnants of greenish-yellow lava flows,” says Elkins-Tanton.
Psyche is reported to be over 150 million miles away at its closest approach to Earth, and for now all scientists are able to see of it is just a point of light due to its distance. It’s also in the outer part of the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, according to reports.
“Since asteroids are leftovers from when the planets formed, Psyche is like an exposed version of what lurks at the center of rocky planets,” said Elkins-Tanton.
“We’re trying to understand the metal core of the Earth. We are never, ever going to go to those cores — way too hot, way too deep — so this is our one way to see a core.”
“There are other metallic asteroids that represent this kind of planetary building block, but Psyche is by far the largest, and the one that is most likely to tell us the most about cores,” Elkins-Tanton stated.
“The planet Mercury has an unusually high amount of iron beneath a rocky shell, and there are some planets outside the solar system, around distant stars, that also seem to mostly be made of metal,” says Ben Weiss, the deputy principal investigator for the mission.
“So even though Psyche’s metal-rich nature makes it an unusual asteroid, it’s also kind of representative of a diverse range of bodies that we think are maybe metal worlds,” he says.
“Because we don’t know what its surface looks like, we’re not ready to land. We’re not ready to sample. We have to have some sense of what this object is like before we can take that next step,” says Elkins-Tanton.
Eric Mastrota is a Contributing Editor at The National Digest based in New York. A graduate of SUNY New Paltz, he reports on world news, culture, and lifestyle. You can reach him at email@example.com.