Cupid and his arrows gets all of the press but Greek mythology experts know the whole story about Cupid and his wife Psyche from the 2nd century CE novel Metamorphoses (The Golden Ass) by Lucius Apuleius Madaurensis. Psyche was the most beautiful woman in the world who was tricked by a jealous Venus, only to be saved by Cupid (it’s more complicated than that, but this is a story about a different Psyche). Today’s space news concerns a different Psyche – the largest metallic asteroid in the Main Belt between Jupiter and Mars that is the target of the upcoming “Mission to a Metal World” scheduled for a 2022 SpaceX launch date. While its metallic content has long been known (and makes far uglier asteroidly-speaking than its namesake), the reason why hasn’t … until now.
“Psyche is an interesting body to study because it is likely the remnant of a planetary core that was disrupted during the accretion stage, and we can learn a lot about planetary formation from Psyche if it is indeed primarily metallic.”
Wendy K. Caldwell, Los Alamos National Laboratory Chick Keller Postdoctoral Fellow, is the lead author of a paper published in the journal Icarus about 2D and 3D computer simulations of possible causes of Psyche’s metallic composition. The models paid special attention to telescopic images of the craters on Psyche, which are far different than those on rocky or icy asteroids. A Los Alamos press release gives the big reveal that Psyche was most likely a young planet on the path to formation when it was battered by other space objects during its core formation phase, stopping its growth and leaving the metallic core exposed.
“Our ability to model the impact through the modification stage is essential to understanding how craters form on metallic bodies. In early stages of crater formation, the target material behaves like a fluid. In the modification stage, however, the strength of the target material plays a key role in how material that isn’t ejected ‘settles’ into the crater.”
Then the Psyche mission – four shrinking orbits around the asteroid – will determine its metallic content, which many scientists believe is Monel, a strong nickel alloy based on ore found in the Sudbury impact crater in Ontario. A match would indicate that Monel is extraterrestrial in origin and the two current and former space rocks could possibly be related.
The Psyche mission won’t arrive at the asteroid until 2026, but this modeling emphasizes its importance in the study of how planets form, especially during their core phase. Unfortunately, it won’t help the other Psyche pass Cupid on the popularity list – Cupid still has Valentine’s Day and all that chocolate going for him.
(Feature image is an artist’s conception of the Psyche mission, courtesy of NASA)