Will NASA mine the core of a dead planet for quadrillion’s of dollars of nickel and iron? There have been unexpected discoveries on this planetary embryo found in our solar system’s Asteroid Belt.
Named 16 Psyche, the bolide is one of the most massive in the Asteroid Belt, measuring 186 miles across and consisting of almost pure nickel-iron metal. It is thought to be the remnant core of a planetary embryo that was mostly destroyed by impacts billions of years ago.
The massive 16 Psyche asteroid is not only an interesting piece of rock, but the minerals she’s made up of are literally worth quadrillions of dollars. Being wildly fascinating and extremely rich does have its perks, and NASA is definitely courting her.
Earlier this year, NASA confirmed a mission to 16 Psyche. About a month ago, they bumped up their timeline, and now the mission seems to be ahead of schedule. The launch of the Psyche robotic spacecraft will occur in 2022. Employing a fancy sling shot maneuver using the gravity of Earth and Mars, the spacecraft will reach the asteroid by 2026.
The reason for NASA’s interest in this asteroid is that it is comprised totally of nickel and iron, the same metals which make up the Earth’s core. The working theory is that 16 Psyche is actually the core of a long dead planet, which was roughly the same size as Mars, but was ripped apart due to massive collisions billions of years ago. While NASA views this as an opportunity to view a planetary core, similar to that of our own ‘terra firma‘, the niggling reality of a corpse planet serves as a cold reminder to an unfriendly cosmos.
Only slightly less interesting is that the asteroid has an estimated value of $10,000 quadrillion American dollars. The nickel and iron content of 16 Pysche is enough to crash the Earth’s entire economic system. The current gross world product (GWP) is only about $74 trillion, so humanity can only hope 16 Psyche gives change.
Lindy Elkins-Tanton, the lead scientist on the NASA mission and the director of Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, stated in an interview that,
“Even if we could grab a big metal piece and drag it back here … what would you do? Could you kind of sit on it and hide it and control the global resource – kind of like diamonds are controlled corporately – and protect your market? What if you decided you were going to bring it back and you were just going to solve the metal resource problems of humankind for all time? This is wild speculation obviously.”
The technology required to drag a 200 kilometre wide metal asteroid from its current orbit, and bring it back to Earth, is still quite a ways away. The Psyche mission is purely to observe the asteroid, and not to begin mining operations. The spacecraft will send data back to Earth which should help scientists here better understand how planets form, as well as how and why planets, such as Earth, separate into layers that make up the core, mantle and crust.
In addition to learning more about Earth, the NASA team also believes that asteroids such as 16 Psyche could provide possible life lines in space. New research suggests that this asteroid could be full of water. As humans endeavour deeper into space, similar asteroids could be used as sources of water. Elkins-Tanton notes,
That water can be used to make rocket fuel or be drunk by people, so then we’d have a resource stop that has metal and water.
While this is all still speculative, by 2026, NASA will get a close up view of 16 Psyche. Perhaps the intimate knowledge of a dead planet will remind humanity that its current squabbling over politics, religions, and resources are meaningless to the cosmos.
Asteroids are remaining fragments from the formation of the solar system that today orbit the sun between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Most of them fall into two broad categories: those rich in silicates, and those rich in carbon and volatiles. Metallic asteroids such as Psyche are extremely rare, making it a laboratory to study how planets formed.
While the source of this water on Psyche remains a mystery, Reddy and his colleagues propose two possible mechanisms for its formation.
“We think the water we see on Psyche might have been delivered to its surface by carbonaceous asteroids that impacted Psyche in the distant past,” Reddy says.
“Our discovery of carbon and water on an asteroid that isn’t supposed to have those compounds supports the notion that these building blocks of life could have been delivered to our Earth early in the history of our solar system history,” said Reddy, who discovered similar dark, carbonaceous impactors rich in volatiles on the surface of asteroid Vesta by studying the images from NASA’s Dawn mission.
Alternatively, the hydroxyl could be the product of solar wind interacting with silicate minerals on Psyche’s surface.
The obvious answer to me: start building a Dyson Sphere.