This space odyssey into an uncharted world might not only give us priceless insights to the dawn of our solar system, but also have us witness the start of a new gold rush era of asteroid-mining.
Taking up residence in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, a shiny, potato-shaped asteroid, 16 Psyche, has caught the eye of NASA with the help of Hubble Space Telescope’s astronomical imaging. Based on data on Psyche, scientists have determined the asteroid to be lumpy, wide across (280 kilometres) and having an irregular distribution of mass. However, most notably, the rock seems unusually reflective as compared to the rest of the celestial objects in the asteroid belt. In fact, this bright and shiny feature is what led Psyche to be one of the first few asteroids to have been discovered in the night sky by early astronomers in 1852. But only with recent technological developments are we able to understand the celestial body better.
The high amounts of reflection have led astronomers today to hypothesise that the asteroid may be exceptionally rich in metal, particularly nickel and iron. This exciting revelation could mean that Psyche could be worth an estimated $10,000 quadrillion, a whole lot more than our global economy, which is only valued at $84.5 trillion. We could very well be looking at the starting point of asteroid-mining in the future.
On the other hand, researchers also reckon the asteroid to be the remnant of a planet that never came to be, also known as planetesimal, a planet-forming building block. If this was the case, the astronomical world would have access to an invaluable set of data that could give answers to questions around the formation of our solar system.
In order to further inspect the asteroid and confirm the hypothesised theories, NASA will be launching a discovery expedition to Psyche under the same name, NASA’s Psyche Mission. The spacecraft will launch in August of 2022, on a Falcon Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. On top of carrying various instruments to study the asteroid, the spacecraft will also be equipped to test laser communication technology — a recent interest of NASA as well.
Once launched, the spacecraft will do a Mars flyby in 2023 where it will also receive gravity-assist to further propel itself towards its target, Psyche. The craft is expected to arrive at Psyche in January 2026 where it will spend 21 months closely studying and charting the asteroid. We hope this space odyssey will surprise us with incredible data and unsuspecting answers (possibly with even more questions to solve)!