Western Slope Skies – A wandering soul in the asteroid belt

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You’ve probably heard of the Asteroid Belt, that planetary cemetery between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, where many space rocks revolve around the Sun. Asteroids formed early in the development of the solar system, when pre-planetary (planetesimals) bodies repeatedly collided under Jupiter’s immense gravity, continually fragmenting into what we see today. You may know some of their names: Ceres, Vesta, Pallas, Juno. You can add one more to your list: the strange potato-shaped world of Psyche.

Psyche is a large asteroid, about 140 miles wide, weighing 24 quadrillion tons. It orbits an average of 280 million miles from the Sun, taking five Earth years to complete one of its own. In contrast, it completes a “day” in just over four hours, turning almost sideways like Uranus. The Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis discovered Psyche in March 1852, giving it the name of the Greek goddess of the soul. The number 16 sometimes precedes the name, indicating its order in the discovery of asteroids.

Asteroids generally have a composition rich in carbon (type C) or silicate (type S). Infrared observations, however, suggest that Psyche is exceptionally rich in metals (type M), estimated to be around 90% iron and nickel, and around 10% orthopyroxene (a silicate mineral). A class of terrestrial meteorites (mesosiderites) has the same composition; astronomers believe they originated from Psyche. Psyche is also assumed to be the ancient nucleus of a large planetesimal, razed to the ground by an asteroid collision. The interior of the Earth is theorized to house a similar nucleus. In the absence of predictable means to directly access the heart of our planet, studying Psyche offers the second best thing.

NASA has scheduled a Psyche orbiter mission for the end of this decade, based on a proposal from the Arizona State University science team. The spacecraft will be launched in August 2022, atop a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. (See under construction here.) After mating an increase in gravity from a flyby of Mars in 2023, the spacecraft will settle into orbit in early 2026, remotely mapping and probing Psyche for 21 months. Unfortunately, the orbiter will be unable to take a return sample.

Forbes magazine hypothesized that Psyche’s metal is worth around $ 10 quintillion, or 70,000 times the current global economy. This raises the prospect of space mining. But a word of warning before you diversify your obligations: Space exploration technology does not yet exist and is probably decades away. An overabundance of refined psychean ore could severely depress the prices of metallic raw materials, turning the space boom into a collapse. Yet one day we might run out of available earthly iron and nickel and turn our eyes (and proverbial pickaxes) skyward to Psyche.

Western Slopes Skies is produced by the Black Canyon Astronomical Society. This episode was written and voiced by Michael T. Williams.


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