NASA is actively exploring the possibility of mining the asteroid Psyche for nickel iron ore. Psyche, in this case, is not the combination of the id, ego, and superego; it’s thought to be the exposed core of a protoplanet, which has had the rocky surface stripped or blasted off of it over millions of years. Or, it could be a Death Star; to-MAY-toes, to_Mah-toes.
Scientists are planning a trip to the metallic asteroid, because they can learn from it clues about planet formation, insight into how the Universe was when it was young, and also it’s frankly a smart business enterprise that could pay off monetarily.
According to one member of the scientific research team, Lindy Elkins-Tanton, who is the director of the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, Psyche represents “the first metal world humankind will have ever seen.” She added that a mission to Psyche would be a great way “to do some fundamental science that hasn’t been done before.”
Being composed of metal, Psyche may possess a strong magnetic field, though its main attraction to potential business investors in a mission to the asteroid would be to mine the nickel iron ore out of the protoplanet to supply the world’s needs.
Psyche is 155 miles wide, and it’s located between Jupiter and Mars in the main asteroid belt. The outer surface of the protoplanet, scientists theorize, got blasted off by collisions with space debris a long time ago.
If Psyche really is the inner core of a long-gone small planet or moon, according to Elkins-Tanton, landing on it, studying it in closer detail, and mining it will provide scientists a unique chance to learn more about the cores of planets and moons.
Psyche is the only such metal planetoid that’s been so far discovered.A preliminary robotic mission would send photos and information back that could prove to be crucial in the eventual, and inevitable, attempts made to mine the metallic asteroid.
The mission would fill in many gaps in our knowledge. As Elkins-Tanton puts it, we know quite a bit about the surfaces of icy and stony asteroids, but very little about the surface of asteroids which are metal.
If craters are discovered there with metallic material around their rims that look kind of like they jut out in a solid sheet, that would be proof that Psyche has been struck by space detritus, or asteroids, in the past.
Just how big of a pay off would Psyche be to NASA or anyone else who mines it?
Whoever is able to claim Psyche and mine it would likely reap a fortune in nickel iron ore and possibly other valuable metals.
According to Elkins-Tanton, scientists are expected to have a proposal ready by 2015 to make a mission to Psyche to orbit the asteroid and study it for six months and analyze it’s magnetic field, topography, gravity, and surface features a NASA Discovery-Class Mission.
A Discovery-class mission would cost around $425 million, plus whatever the launch-vehicle expenses would be. That might sound like a lot of money to you, but Discovery-class missions are actually lower-cost ones.
Still, that much money isn’t chicken feed the spacecraft that would travel to Psyche would probably be based off of the one NASA calls Dawn probe, which is headed to Ceres, a dwarf planet. Dawn, powered by an electric ion engine, previously orbited and analyzed the protoplanet Vesta.
How big of a payoff could Psyche be to whoever claims it and mines it successfully? According to a report by Reuters, Psyche is composed of enough nickel iron to meet the world’s demands for several million years — 17 million billion tons of the stuff, give or take. Also, it’s possible that the asteroid might contain other metals, like platinum.
Mining operations within the asteroid belt, which have been written about in many science fiction novels and short stories, could begin as little as a few decades off, if not even sooner. All of that metal, just lying out there waiting to be claimed and exploited, is a powerful incentive, one which makes the associated costs of the mission to Psyche well worth the expense.
NASA may be a pioneer in space mining operations sooner than you might think, if they okay the plans of scientists for a NASA Discovery-class mission to head to Psyche and study it more in-depth. Though it will cost over $425 million, at least no new technology would have to be invented to accomplish this preliminary goal, and the eventual payoff could be huge.
Written by: Douglas Cobb