NASA has announced plans to launch a robotic mission to explore a 200-km-wide asteroid known as 16 Psyche. The asteroid is located in the large asteroid belt between the planets Jupiter and Mars. Scientists estimate that the iron contained in the asteroid could be worth more than about $10,000 quadrillion.
The asteroid, orbiting the Sun at a distance about three times the distance of Earth from the Sun, is made up mostly of iron and nickel. It is also believed to contain smaller amounts of rare metals, such as gold, platinum, copper, cobalt, iridium and rhenium.
NASA’s robotic mission, budgeted at $450 million, is expected to be launched in 2023 and reach the asteroid in 2030.
Lindy Elkins-Tanton, lead scientist for the mission and director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University in Tempe, told the Canadian news site, Global News, that the iron content of asteroid 16 Psyche alone could be worth more than $10,000 quadrillion, which is enough to collapse the global economy currently worth nearly $74 trillion.
Commenting on the staggering value of the asteroid’s metal resources, and the hypothetical economic implications if it could be transported and placed in orbit around Earth for mining, Elkins-Tanton said, “That’s something I’ve contemplated for a long time.”
“Even if we could grab a big metal piece and drag it back here… what would you do?” she wondered. “Could you kind of sit on it and hide it and control the global resource — kind of like diamonds are controlled corporately — and protect your market? What if you decided you were going to bring it back and you were just going to solve the metal resource problems of humankind for all time? This is wild speculation obviously.”
But NASA does not yet have a plan to mine the asteroid for its metals. According to Elkins-Tanton, the technology to drag the asteroid into Earth’s orbit for mining is not yet available. Instead, the immediate goal of the mission is to observe, study, and collect data about one of the most mysterious space objects in our solar system to confirm the theory that it is a protoplanet or the core left over from a former rocky planet.
Experts hope that the study will lead to a deeper understanding of the process of planet formation and how rocky planets similar to Earth form and differentiate into layers, such as the core, mantle, and crust.
Scientists believe that 16 Psyche might have been a planet about the size of Mars. But the outer layers were stripped or knocked off during multiple massive collisions that occurred during the chaotic early stages of the formation of our solar system. The collisions blasted away the outer rocky layers of the primitive planet, exposing the metallic core that is 16 Psyche.
Another possibility is that it was formed from a space body flung very close to the Sun early in the evolution of our solar system. This led to melting of its iron core.
“Short of it being the Death Star… one other possibility is that it’s material that formed very near the (sun) early in the solar system.”
“This is an opportunity to explore a new type of world – not one of rock or ice, but of metal,” NASA reports Elkins-Tanton said. “16 Psyche is the only known object of its kind in the solar system, and this is the only way humans will ever visit a core. We learn about inner space by visiting outer space.”
Recent research studies suggest that 16 Psyche could contain water. This has led to speculation that it could be used as a “service station” or “resource stopover” by human astronauts during future deep space missions.
“That water can be used to make rocket fuel or be drunk by people, so then we’d have a resource stop that has metal and water.”
Elkins-Tanton was optimistic that the mission to Psyche would inspire future deep space missions.
“I actually think that’s the purpose of space travel; to make us overlook the irritations of the everyday and the difficulties of politics and things like that, and look to a better future,” the researcher said. “I really wanted to inspire people to say, ‘I could take action, I could do something bigger.’”
Asteroid 16 Psyche was first discovered on March 17, 1852, by Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis and named after the Greek mythological character Psyche.
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