Asteroids have become a hot topic of astronomical research. Not only is NASA (finally) concerned with the ever-present danger of potentially Earth-killing asteroids and how to stop them, but many commercial space firms have also begun looking into technologies and techniques to mine asteroids for precious metals and elements. Some companies have even designed prototypes for asteroid-based autonomous spacecraft which can self-replicate by latching onto other asteroids and 3D printing a whole new ship. Neat stuff. Now, NASA has taken the asteroid fixation one step further by announcing a new mission to visit one of the most unique asteroids within our solar system.
The research project is aimed at gathering data which could inform astronomers about the beginnings of our solar system and how planets formed. The mission, called Psyche, will see NASA teaming with astronomers from Arizona State University in order visit one of the solar system’s strangest objects: an world made entirely out of metal.
The asteroid, formally called 16 Psyche, was discovered in 1852 orbiting the Sun between Mars and Jupiter and measures close to 130 miles (210 kilometres) in diameter. Due to its unique metallic composition of nickel and iron, astronomers believe Psyche could actually be the exposed core of a doomed planet which was stripped of its other material by a violent collision at some point in its past. 16 Psyche is even sometimes designated as a minor planet.
The head of the Psyche research project, ASU’s Lindy Elkins-Tanton, stated in a NASA press release that this mission is the first of its kind:
This is an opportunity to explore a new type of world – not one of rock or ice, but of metal. 16 Psyche is the only known object of its kind in the solar system, and this is the only way humans will ever visit a core. We learn about inner space by visiting outer space.
The ASU/NASA Psyche mission will launch in 2023 and will reach the asteroid in 2030. Will they find bizarre metallic organisms clanking around the place? Doubtful. But understanding more about 16 Psyche could unlock some of the mysteries of our own planet’s history, which for some is more interesting than the possibility of metallic E.T.s. Not for me, though. Still, the entire concept of a solid ball of metal hurtling through our cosmic neighborhood is pretty neat. If commercial space mining ventures ever do get off the ground, 16 Psyche could be an optimal first target.