The chase for 16 Psyche, asteroid that is costlier than Earth

Topics asteroids | NASA

An illustration of the spacecraft and the asteroid 16 Psyche, which is thought to be a stripped planetary core | Photo: Nasa
In 2008, Peter Diamandis, chairman of the XPrize Foundation, which rewards the development of futuristic technologies, predicted the first trillionaire would come from the asteroid-mining industry. The technology for this is still some indefinable distance in the future. But the incentives have grown. 

Asteroids are small rocky bodies, orbiting the sun. The vast majority are in the so-called Asteroid Belt, between Mars and Jupiter. But these rocks also wander around elsewhere, leading to occasional scares about one hitting Earth and triggering another mass extinction.

Asteroids come in different sizes and shapes. It’s believed some have vast deposits of metals, and water. Nasa’s OSIRIS-REx mission recently landed on the asteroid Bennu and it’s on its way back to Earth with soil samples. It will deliver the samples only in mid-2023 after a 7 billion km round trip.

Osiris launched in 2016. By 2017, NASA was planning a trip to the asteroid 16 Psyche, which lies in the Asteroid Belt, over 370 million km away. It was already known Psyche was a very unusual object. 

The latest observations from the Hubble Telescope and an analysis in The Planetary Science Journal confirms that it is not just unusual and scientifically interesting. It is also incredibly valuable. 

16 Psyche is among the largest asteroids, over 220 km in diameter. It was found and named in 1852 by Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis. The “16” indicates it was the 16th minor planet (yes, it’s that large) discovered. It is now thought to consist entirely of iron and nickel, with traces of other metals. 

It’s estimated 16 Psyche contains 24 million-trillion tonnes of metal — that’s 24 followed by 15 zeros. This has a notional value of something like $10,000 followed by 15 zeros. That would be far more than the annual global GDP, which is merely $81 followed by 12 zeros.

Astronomers have studied it in visible light, ultraviolet and infrared, and bounced radar waves. Psyche looks like a potato. It moves in an elliptical orbit between 370 million km and 497 million km distant from the sun, and completes one circuit in about five Earth years. It spins fast — rotating every four hours.

Rocky planets like Earth, Mars, Venus, etcetera, have similar metallic cores. However, those cores are hot and inaccessible and covered by mantles and crusts consisting of masses of rock soil, and water. Psyche, for some reason, never acquired this crust-covering. Or else, this was stripped off in some cosmic event.

The Psyche mission will not be looking to mine it. Typically, scientists (who tend to be unmoved by the thought of material gain) are interested in knowing what the core of a rocky planet looks like, without the “makeup”. They are also hoping to find clues as to why Psyche does not have a crust. 

The mission is due to launch in 2022. The scientific experiments are lead-designed by Arizona State University, while NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory will manage the operations. The spacecraft will use solar-electric propulsion. It will reach Psyche in 2026 after a fly-by of Mars in 2025. The vehicle will orbit Psyche for two years, using an imager, magnetometer and a gamma-ray spectrometer to study the asteroid. It will use a new laser communication system that codes data directly into photons (not radio waves as is standard). This should enable more data transmission. 

There are several private sector teams working on developing technologies for asteroid mining. Diamandis himself was an early investor in Planetary Resources in 2012, while another bunch of venture capitalists set up Deep Space industries. Goldman Sachs released an encouraging report about the likely returns in 2019. The new information about 16 Psyche could lead to a 21st century metal-rush.

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