NASA scientists have been busy recently, mapping out a new proposed mission that targets the metal asteroid named Psyche. This huge asteroid is not only different in name but much different from most asteroids as it is thought that Psyche is the exposed iron core of a protoplanet.
A protoplanet is thought to be formed shortly after the birth of the universe. Giant molecular dust clouds collapse in and form at least one star. Then gases form around the new star, where gravity and other heavenly forces cause particles and dust in the cloud to collide and stick together. Some of these objects collide with each other and break apart, but those that stay together are thought to keep growing until they are approximately a kilometer wide. At that size, these objects begin to attract more particles and objects with their own gravity until they grow large enough to be small moon-size objects called protoplanets.
The all-metal Psyche is thought by NASA to be stripped and battered iron core of a protoplanet. If this theory is correct, the proposed mission would offer the scientists an extremely rare look into the early birth years of the solar system. It is also extremely rare to have the possibility to examine such a rare celestial object up close.
The proposed NASA mission will be the “first metal world humankind will have ever seen” says the director of the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism and mission team member, Lindy Elkins-Tanton. Elkins-Tanton also said that this asteroid mission targets an opportunity to experiment with “fundamental science that hasn’t been done before.”
Psyche is 250 kilometers or 155 miles wide that lives out in the asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars. Scientists think Psyche largely consist of iron whose rock has been blasted away from ancient massive collisions.
Elkins-Tanton thinks that Psyche offers a unique opportunity for scientists to learn more about large moon and planet cores that are normally covered with rock that is many miles thick. Psyche is such a rare find that it is the only object of its kind in the entire solar system.
The proposed NASA mission to Psyche would consist of a robotic explorer that would gather information and images of the object and beam the data back to Earth. Astronomers would be able to measure a metal world for the first time on an object that scientists know very little about.
Elkins-Tanton stated that scientists know quite a lot about icy and stony celestial bodies but with metal ones, nobody knows what the metal surface of Psyche will actually look like up close. She also said that it’s a possibility that some material melted from the impacts on Psyche’s surface. These melted spots may have solidified in sheets as the protoplanet was impacted by other objects. Before being lost into space, some of those solidified sheets of metal may have been frozen like “metallic curtains of ejecta” that “jut from the rims of impact craters.”
The proposed NASA mission to the metal asteroid Psyche is targeting a date of 2015 for the new mission to occur.
By Brent Matsalla