A metal-rich asteroid: Nasa's Psyche mission to explore unique asteroid between Mars and Jupiter

 Observations from ground-based radars and telescopes have shown that the asteroid, which is 280 kilometres wide, is largely made up of metals.

When the Psyche mission launches next year, it will be the first spacecraft headed to study an asteroid that is not rich in dust and ice but metals. Inspired by Jules Verne's 'Journey to the Center of the Earth' that talked about a metallic core at the centre of the planet, the mission will visit a giant asteroid that may be the frozen remains of the molten core of a bygone world.

The mission will be targetted to the Psyche asteroid that orbits the Sun in the main asteroid belt, between Mars and Jupiter that scientists believe could be part or all of the iron-rich interior of an early planetary building block that was stripped of its outer rocky shell over the course of formation of our solar system.

Observations from ground-based radars and telescopes have shown that the asteroid, which is 280 kilometres wide, is largely made up of metals. However, scientists also speculate that it could be the leftover piece of a completely different kind of iron-rich body that formed from metal-rich material somewhere in the solar system.


Scientists will look for the origins of the asteroid which remains a mystery. Nasa said that it might have originated inside the main asteroid belt, but it’s also possible that it was born in the same zone as the inner planets like Earth or in the outer solar system, where giant planets like Jupiter now reside.

The spacecraft will investigate why Psyche appears to be low in iron oxides, which are chemical compounds made of iron and oxygen. Mars, Mercury, Venus, and Earth all have them. Ground-based observations have led scientists to believe that the asteroid was as much as 90 per cent metal. However, recent research led by Elkins-Tanton used updated density measurements to estimate that the asteroid is more likely between 30 per cent and 60 per cent metal.

"There are a lot of basic questions about Psyche that are unanswered, and with every detail that gets added from data we can collect from Earth, it just becomes harder to make a sensible story. We really don’t know what we’re going to see until we visit, and we’re going to be surprised,” said the mission’s principal investigator, Lindy Elkins-Tanton of Arizona State University.

The spacecraft has been equipped with a magnetometer, a gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer, and a multispectral imager. Scientists know that the asteroid doesn’t generate a magnetic field the way Earth does, but if Psyche had a magnetic field in the past, it could still be recorded in the asteroid’s material today.


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