By Wendy K. Caldwell
This summer, NASA will launch its first mission to a metallic asteroid, 16 Psyche, in the main asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Previous missions have explored rocky and icy asteroids, but Psyche’s composition is widely believed to consist of a considerable amount of metal. Of course, in today’s click-bait culture, googling Psyche will take you down the proverbial Internet rabbit hole of stories about how it is worth more than the global economy. As enticing as that idea is, we are not going to scrap it and sell it for parts.
From a scientific perspective, though, Psyche is priceless.
In school, we learn that Earth has a layered structure: crust, mantle and core (inner and outer). Billions of years ago, as Earth and other planets were forming, solid bodies collided more frequent than today. Some of these collisions helped to build up these layers, creating larger bodies that became planets. Other collisions blew apart still-forming planets. The metallic asteroids are thought to be their remnants, cores of would-be planets that were stripped of their outer layers through high-velocity impacts.
The largest of these remnants, with an approximate diameter of 140 miles, Psyche may hold answers to questions about the early solar system, including how planets form or fail to fully form. The NASA mission will be equipped with instruments for measuring various properties of Psyche, and these data can provide more insight into the asteroid’s composition, including how much of it is metallic and how much empty space is present.
Read the rest of the story as it appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican.