Scientists have dreamed of mining riches from asteroids for years. Although some of them are nothing more than icy piles of rock, others are made of metals.
Located in the main asteroid belt of the solar system between Mars and Jupiter, 16 Psyche is one of these metal-rich asteroids. Scientists believe the one-of-a-kind solar body could be worth $10,000 quadrillion. That’s a mind-boggling number by any standard.
Now, NASA is getting ready to build a spacecraft to explore the asteroid. Appropriately called “Psyche,” NASA’s latest spacecraft is scheduled for an August 2022 launch.
Passing a Critical Checkpoint
The Psyche mission recently passed a major checkpoint on its path to launching. That checkpoint was its critical design review (CDR), where NASA assesses the design of every system and subsystem of the mission. That includes everything from scientific instruments to communications to power and propulsion gear.
Psyche principal investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton says, “It’s one of the most intense reviews a mission goes through in its entire life cycle and we passed with flying colors. The challenges are not over, and we’re not at the finish line, but we’re running strong.”
Now that its CDR is over, the Psyche team can start building the mission’s hardware. Notably, all of Psyche’s science gear must be delivered to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) by April 2021. That deadline doesn’t give the team any time to waste.
Arizona State University is in charge of leading the Psyche project, but NASA’s JPL is managing it.
The $850 million mission will help scientists learn more about the mysterious 16 Psyche asteroid. A probe will conduct an in-depth analysis of its metallic composition using a triad of scientific instruments. The Psyche spacecraft will carry a multispectral imager, gamma-ray and neutron spectrometers, and a magnetometer.
It will also feature a new technology called Deep Space Optical Communication. The method transmits data to Earth using photons instead of radio waves. This makes communication more efficient.
So long as the rest of the mission’s progress goes according to plan, Psyche will hitch a ride to space on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket in 2022. It will fly past Mars in 2023 and arrive at 16 Psyche in 2026.
Scientists believe that 16 Psyche is the heart of a dead planet since its core is remarkably similar to Earth’s. Current theories suggest that its rocky outer layers were stripped away by violent collisions, leaving only the metal-rich core behind.
The 140-mile-wide asteroid is composed of metals like iron, nickel, and gold. Unlike most other asteroids, that composition makes it incredibly valuable. The metals could be worth more than $10,000 quadrillion. To put it in perspective, that figure far surpasses the value of the entire global economy.
Of course, the prospect of bringing that wealth back to Earth remains in the realm of science fiction. While scientists continue to work on the idea of asteroid mining, it isn’t feasible yet. Especially not with an asteroid so far away.
Still, NASA’s current Psyche mission could pave the way for a future where heavy industry takes place in the heavens rather than on Earth.