Why is NASA sending a spacecraft to a metal world? – Linda T. Elkins-Tanton

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In 2026, an unmanned NASA spacecraft is scheduled to arrive on 16 Psyche, a massive, metallic asteroid floating somewhere between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Why is NASA so interested in this heavy metal asteroid? Are we going to mine all that metal, or build a giant space magnet? Linda T. Elkins-Tanton explains how the real answer can be found right under our feet.
Lesson by Linda T. Elkins-Tanton, animation by Eoin Duffy.
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Caption: Somewhere between the orbits . of mars and jupiter,. about 500 million kilometers . away from earth,. floats a metallic orb . the size of massachusetts. that’s no moon. it’s 16 psyche,. one of the most massive. asteroids in the solar system. and it is the asteroid . our droids are looking for. we humans have managed . to send robotic spacecraft. to all sorts of environments in space –. the gas clouds of saturn and jupiter,. the icy wastes of europa,. and the rocky dunes of mars. but psyche’s surface . isn’t just hard rock –. it’s heavy metal. the asteroid mostly consists . of nickel and iron,. by far the largest known body . with such a composition. but we don’t yet know what it looks like;. our best current radar images . show a pixelated smudge. that’ll change in 2026,. when an unmanned spacecraft sent as. part of nasa’s discovery program. is scheduled to arrive. so why is nasa so interested in psyche . are we going to mine all that metal, . or build a giant space magnet . actually, the real reason . is right under our feet. the core of the earth is thought . to consist of a solid nickel-iron center. with a molten outer layer. but we’re prevented from studying it up. close by 2,800 kilometers of solid rock. the deepest we’ve been able . to drill is 12 kilometers. even if we could go further,. the pressure at the core is three million. times higher than at the surface,. with a temperature . of 5,000 degrees celsius. simply put, a journey to the center of. the earth is out of the question for now. so scientists have had to resort . to indirect ways of studying the core,. like measuring earthquake waves . that pass through it,. or studying minerals thought . to have formed there. but what if the best way to study . earth’s inner space. is by visiting outer space . after all, we have a pretty. good idea of how our planets formed. dust and gas orbiting our young sun . cooled and collided. to form a few thousand miniature bodies . we call planetesimals. as these continued to orbit,. some combined to grow larger,. eventually forming our planets. others experienced impacts . that broke them apart into smaller chunks–. the asteroids we see today . in the belt between mars and jupiter. what makes psyche so special. is that it appears . to have been a planetesimal. well on its way to becoming a planet,. with a rocky exterior . surrounding a metal core. but its progress was cut short . by a series of hit-and-run collisions. with other planetesimals. that knocked off the rocky crust . until only the core remained. experiencing that many . destructive collisions. with no additive ones in between . is statistically very unlikely,. making psyche an amazingly . rare opportunity. to study an exposed metallic core. to do that, nasa’s robotic orbiter . will be equipped. with an array of advanced instruments. a spectrometer will analyze . the gamma rays and neutrons. produced when psyche . is struck by cosmic rays. each element in the periodic table. releases gamma rays . of specific wavelengths,. so these measurements will tell us . what elements are found on the surface. a magnetometer will measure . psyche’s magnetic field,. allowing us to learn more. about how earth’s magnetic field . is generated at its core. and of course, an imager will give us . a closer look at the surface. than ever before. visiting a whole new kind of world . is exciting enough on its own. but the mission to psyche gives us . a unique chance. to discover our own planet’s innermost . secrets in an orbit far, far away. .
 

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