A new study by the Hubble Space Telescope has revealed a clearer picture than ever of one of the most fascinating and precious asteroids we know.
It’s also one that NASA plans to visit in 2026.
Here you will find everything you need to know about “16 Psyche”.
What and where is ’16 Psyche?‚
Approximately 370 million kilometers from Earth, Psyche is – as is generally known – one of the most massive objects in the main asteroid belt of the solar system, which orbits between Mars and Jupiter.
It’s roughly 140 miles wide and, unlike most asteroids, which are rocky or icy, Psyche appears to be metallic.
In fact, it is so dense and metallic that Psyche is viewed as the leftover core of a planet that failed during its formation – a “protoplanet”.
What is ’16 Psyche, made of?
“We have seen meteorites made mostly of metal, but Psyche might be unique in that it is an asteroid made entirely of iron and nickel,” said Dr. Tracy Becker, planetary researcher at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas and author of the new paper published in the Planetary Science Journal this week.
Iron and nickel are the heaviest elements formed by a supernova, and they are common in metallic meteorites and in the dense metal cores of planets. “The earth has a metal core, a mantle and a crust,” said Becker.
Psyche is really a unique object in the solar system.
How much is ’16 Psyche ‘worth?
Some think the metals that make up Psyche could be worth around $ 10,000 trillion. The global economy was worth around $ 142 trillion in 2019.
What happened to ’16 Psyche? ‚
“It is possible that a psyche protoplanet, when it was forming, was hit by another object in our solar system and lost its mantle and crust,” said Becker.
’16 Psyche‘And the Hubble Space Telescope
Becker’s study had the Hubble Space Telescope observe the asteroid at two specific points in its rotation to look at both sides of the psyche. It also looked at the asteroid in ultraviolet wavelengths of light to get as much detail as possible from its surface. “For the first time, we were able to determine what iron oxide UV absorption bands are in our opinion on an asteroid,” said Becker. “This is an indication that an oxidation is taking place on the asteroid, which could be due to the fact that the solar wind hits the surface.”
The solar wind is a stream of charged particles from the sun’s hotter outer atmosphere Corona. Often referred to as “space weather”, it is also what causes aurora on earth and could have led to excessive “space weathering” in Psyche.
A surface made of pure iron?
Becker realized that the asteroid’s surface could be mostly pure iron, but noted that the presence of a small amount of iron could dominate the UV observations, and in practice it could only be that 10% of the surface is actually iron .
However, while observing the psyche, the asteroid appeared to be increasingly reflective at lower UV wavelengths. “This is something that we need to study further,” said Becker. “This could indicate that it was exposed in space for so long. This type of UV brightening is often attributed to weathering in space. ”
However, Becker’s article makes it very clear that while it is difficult to quantify the amount of iron that can be present on the surface of the psyche, it is a unique object so that scientists cannot compare it to anything else.
The mission of NASA and SpaceX to 16 psyche
The only way to get a close-up view of what the core of a planet really looks like is to pay Psyche a visit. That is exactly what NASA is planning.
NASA’s Psyche mission is scheduled to launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket in August 2022 and is part of their low-cost robotic space missions discovery program.
The orbiter is scheduled to arrive in Psyche in January 2026 to begin mapping the orbit and studying the properties of the asteroid for at least 21 months.
“It’s fascinating to understand what really makes a planet and possibly to see the inside of a planet,” said Becker, who describes the psyche and other asteroids as the building blocks of the solar system. “As soon as we get to Psyche, we will really understand whether this is the case, even if it does not turn out as we expected … whenever there is a surprise, it is always exciting.”
I wish you clear skies and big eyes.
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