Following the successful mission of collecting samples from an asteroid called Bennu, NASA is now getting ready to send a spacecraft to explore another asteroid.
The Psyche mission — named after the asteroid it’s planning to study — is set to blast off on Thursday atop a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla., where it will begin a six-year journey to its home in the asteroid belt.
After its arrival, the spacecraft will spend two years in orbit around Psyche, examining various aspects like its composition, age, and topography.
Why is NASA embarking on another mission to an asteroid?
To gain a deeper comprehension of Earth, as usual.
Earth is made up of three layers: The crust, the mantle and the core. But because the core lies so deep within the planet, we know virtually nothing about it.
However, within the asteroid belt, which contains over a million objects that have remained since the creation of our solar system 4.5 billion years ago, there might be valuable information in the metal-rich asteroids. Psyche is an example of such an object.
Until now, astronomers have solely relied on NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and the retired airborne Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) telescope to gather information about the asteroid known as 16 Psyche.
But from that they’ve learned that the 280–kilometre wide, potato-shaped asteroid is likely metal-rich, unlike any asteroid we’ve ever visited.
Lindy Elkins-Tanton, the principal investigator of the Psyche mission, mentioned that there are likely over two million objects in our solar system. While we often concentrate on the larger planets, there is a vast number of smaller objects with diverse characteristics. These objects offer unique insights into the narrative of our solar system.
Scientists are particularly interested in comprehending the process of core formation in rocky planets such as Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars, as well as visualizing their potential appearances.
WATCH | NASA’s Psyche Mission to an Asteroid:
Elkins-Tanton, a professor at Arizona State University’s school of Earth and space exploration, stated that this is the most reliable source for information on metal cores.
“Because we cannot go to the cores of any of our rocky planets — way too hot, way too much pressure — but they make these magnetic fields that keep our atmosphere safe and give us guidance and have a really important aspect of habitability.”
There are two primary explanations regarding the origin of Psyche. The first theory suggests that Psyche was in the process of developing into a planet, known as a planetesimal. However, it is believed that another object collided with Psyche, causing the removal of its outer layer and leaving only a metallic core behind.
An alternative explanation suggests that it originated during the formation of our solar system and subsequently moved away from the sun to its current location within the asteroid belt.
However, scientists could potentially be mistaken regarding both theories.
“Psyche is so cool, because we still don’t really know what it is,” said Zoe Landsman, a research scientist at the University of Central Florida, and chief scientist at the Center for Lunar and Asteroid Surface Science (CLASS).
Though not involved in the mission, Landsman has studied Psyche in depth and is excited about what surprises may lie in store with this mission. Psyche may not even look like we think it does.
“There’s really nothing that beats actually sending a spacecraft to the object. And I think every single time that we’ve gone to a new world, there’s something that completely subverts our expectations, and you learn something tremendously valuable about the solar system.”
Worth $10,000 quadrillion
In 2017, Elkins-Tanton estimated the potential value of Psyche to be an astonishing $10,000 quadrillion USD, provided that we acquire the necessary resources for mining it.
However, she mentioned during her conversation with CBC, there are a few conditions to consider.
“We have no technology for bringing Psyche back to Earth. There isn’t any way to do that. And then if we did, it would probably be a really bad day on Earth, because we also have no technology for putting it into a stable orbit,” she said. And then, even if we could do that, we would have flooded the market and it would be worth nothing.”
Scientists envision space mining as a potential reality, despite its resemblance to science fiction portrayed in popular works like The Expanse.
The topic of space mining is currently being discussed in the space industry. There is a recently established Canadian Space Mining Corporation, although several space mining companies have existed in the past.
Elkins-Tanton expressed her belief that it is possible for individuals to engage in mining activities within the asteroid belt. She considers this idea to be a feasible prospect in various unconventional ways.
Gordon Osinski, a planetary geologist at Western University in London, Ontario, is not part of the Psyche mission but is the leading researcher for Canada’s initial lunar rover. He concurs with the statement but questions the timing.
“I believe it is unavoidable,” he stated. “The occurrence is just a matter of time. I anticipate that it will occur initially on the moon due to its close distance, and the resource in question will be water.” He specifically mentioned that extracting resources on-site, or at the location being explored, would be vital for constructing bases on celestial bodies such as planets or moons.
In a recent report called The Canadian Minerals and Metals Plan, Natural Resources Canada also acknowledged the topic of space mining in their discussion of future prospects.
However, he thinks that asteroid mining is not imminent. Nonetheless, there are several compelling reasons to pursue it. One such reason is the extraction of precious platinum group elements (PGEs), which serve various purposes like powering batteries, constructing solar panels, and even developing medical devices such as pacemakers and magnets.
But no matter what the future holds in terms of further space exploration and mining opportunities, Elkins-Tanton said she’s pumped about the upcoming mission, but she’ll feel better once it’s safely on its way to the asteroid
“I am extremely excited about Psyche,” she expressed. “Moreover, I hope that everyone shares the same level of excitement for Psyche. It has been an enjoyable experience to receive such extensive global support. Individuals are greatly fascinated by this mission.”