NASA Is Sending A Shuttle To This Huge Asteroid – And It Could Make Us All Billionaires

Image: Maxar/ASU/P. Rubin/NASA/JPL-Caltech

Somewhere far out in our Solar System, an object has captured NASA’s attention. With a diameter averaging at around 140 miles, this immense body is presently a great distance away from Earth. But if, theoretically, we were able to bring it to our planet, we’d find that it was incredibly valuable. So much so, in fact, that if we distributed its worth to everyone on earth, it would make us all billionaires.

Image: YouTube/NASA

The object in question is known as 16 Psyche, and it’s a fascinating phenomena. Located within a specific zone of the Solar System called the asteroid belt, 16 Psyche is said to possess a significant mass. In fact, it’s among the more massive asteroids ever found in this entire region.

Image: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/CC BY 2.0

16 Psyche isn’t exactly close to Earth. In fact, if you can imagine the distance between our planet and the Sun, you still wouldn’t be close. Take that distance and treble it, and only then would you be in the right ballpark. Even so, despite this immense distance between us and the asteroid, NASA nonetheless has plans to reach it – and soon.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/NASA

According to NASA, there are plans pencilled in for a mission to 16 Psyche beginning in 2022. Given the lengthy distances that would need to be covered, the space agency has suggested a journey of about four years. However, if a spacecraft actually made it there, then scientists would finally be able to learn more about the mysterious asteroid.

Image: Maurogargano/CC BY-SA 4.0

The enormous asteroid has actually been known to us for quite a long time now. It was first noted back in 1852 by an astronomer from Italy named Annibale de Gasparis. Known for taking the initial records of numerous asteroids in his time, de Gasparis died in 1892 at the age of 72.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Ophelia2 – {{PD-US-expired}}

The asteroid 16 Psyche was given its name in honour of a significant figure within ancient Greek folklore. According to legend, Psyche was a female deity associated with the soul. She was married to Eros, who himself was the deity of love. In many artworks, the pair are shown together, with Psyche represented possessing the wings of a butterfly.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: HYPERSPHERE/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/Getty Images

The number 16 in the asteroid’s name, on the other hand, represents the order in which it was discovered. You see, as with all asteroids, Psyche is defined by the astronomical community as a minor planet. And there’s a very specific procedure which needs to be followed so as to name such entities.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: ANDRZEJ WOJCICKI/Getty Images

Technically speaking, a minor planet is an object in space which directly follows a path around a significant star such as the Sun. As such, many entities fall into this category – they include asteroids, trojans and dwarf planets. However, comets and actual planets are not defined in this way.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: MARK GARLICK/Getty Images

There are three stages in the procedure for bestowing a potential minor planet with an official name. The first of these is to provide the newly observed object with a simple provisional designation. This is to prevent it from being falsely trumpeted as a minor planet before such a description can be confirmed.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: MARK GARLICK/Getty Images

After this, the route of the object is studied. This is based around a concept known as the observation arc, which basically refers to the time separating the entity’s first observation and its most recent. This allows experts to trace the course of the object and ultimately predict where it will end up. From this point, it becomes a numbered minor planet.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: dottedhippo/Getty Images

Ultimately, the minor planet may now be given a proper name in addition to its official number. And the honor of actually doing so belongs to the person who discovered the object initially. But having said all this, not many minor planets are actually given a title in this third stage.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Дмитрий Ларичев/Getty Images

A couple of centuries ago, there hadn’t been many minor planets recorded. In fact, the very first was the asteroid Ceres, which was noted by Giuseppe Piazzi right at the beginning of the 19th century. Given that this was the first minor planet in recorded history, it is officially listed today as 1 Ceres.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: HYPERSPHERE/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/Getty Images

Nowadays, however, more than 545,000 minor planets have been officially recorded and assigned a number. Even so, in addition to that, many hundreds of thousands more have been noted but not yet numbered. Of all the minor planets, it’s perhaps Pluto (official designation: 134340 Pluto) which is the most recognizable to the average person.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: NASA/APL/SwRI via Getty Images

Pluto is today defined as a dwarf planet – the largest such entity in our Solar System. However, at one time it was considered to be an actual planet, but revised definitions meant that it lost this status in 2006. Despite this, it’s still a significant body revolving around our Sun. It’s among the top ten largest – and most massive – objects recorded in our Solar System.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: QAI Publishing/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

There’s no question that Pluto is a fascinating astronomical object, but so too is 16 Psyche. The specific properties and makeup of this asteroid mean that it’s unique and worthy of scientistic investigation. And on top of that, it’s said to be particularly massive compared to most other asteroids within its general vicinity.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/NASA

Psyche is found in the asteroid belt, which itself sits between the planets Jupiter and Mars. It’s here in this region that the majority of asteroids in the Solar System are located. It’s believed that millions can be found here, scattered across an area covering close to 140 million miles end-to-end.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/NASA

The asteroids located here are all different sizes. While there are those considered to be relatively quite small – measuring under a mile in length – others are much bigger. It’s thought that these entities may once have been part of one-time planets that have disintegrated. Another suggestion is that the belt contains material that never quite developed into planets.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Maciej Frolow/Getty Images

The majority of the belt’s asteroids are composed of rock. Having said that, though, some are made up of different sorts of metal. There are also those that are composed of a combination of both, as well as other carbon-based components. Some asteroids have ice and some evidence suggests that even water is located on a number of them.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: SCIEPRO/Getty Images

Some of the asteroids in the belt are apparently just heaps of material which gravity keeps together. Many of them have an unusual rugged shape, quite unlike the sphere of a planet. 16 Psyche is an example of one of the more potato-shaped asteroids. Other forms exist though, like the bone-shaped 216 Kleopatra.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/NASA

Though oddly shaped, it’s said that Psyche’s diameter averages out at 140 miles. This makes it about 16 times smaller than our Moon. It’s also known as an M-type asteroid, which refers to the fact that it’s predominately made of metal. Many of the metals comprising Psyche are considered quite precious on Earth.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/NASA

In fact, Psyche is made up of metals such as iron, nickel, platinum and even gold. And there’s plenty of these valuable materials to go around, too. If, in theory, we could get our hands on all the metals of Psyche and then distributed their worth to everyone on Earth, the world’s population would be much, much more wealthy.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/NASA

Indeed, if we were to estimate the total worth of the metals of Psyche, we come to a figure of roughly $700 quintillion. Of course, this sum is so enormous that it can be rather difficult for the mind to fathom. So, for a sense of scale, if this money was split between every individual on Earth, we’d all become billionaires.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/NASA

That’s quite a concept to try to come to grips with, but Psyche is an incredibly interesting object on its own terms. Some experts have pondered whether or not the asteroid might once have been the core of a planet. This potentially could have once been the size of Mars, but its outer surface may have been weathered away over time.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: MARK GARLICK/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/Getty Images

Psyche is quite a bit further away from the Sun than Earth is. As such, it takes about five of our years to rotate around the star. But on the other hand, the asteroid itself rotates very quickly, meaning that a Psyche day equates to a little over four of our hours.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/NASA

Given the great distances involved, it’s rather unlikely that us Earth-dwellers can expect to enjoy in the spoils of Psyche’s metals anytime soon. Nevertheless, NASA is still planning on sending a spacecraft there. Naturally, this will all be in the interests of science, rather than a money-making venture.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State Univ./Space Systems Loral/Peter Rubin

As things presently stand, the Psyche mission is scheduled to launch in August 2022. At some point the following year, the spacecraft will utilize the gravity of our neighbor Mars for a boost, before pushing onward. It is estimated that it should make it to Psyche at the beginning of 2026.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Youtube/NASA

For just under two years, the spacecraft will be within Psyche’s orbit, utilizing various hi-tech instruments equipped on board. Ultimately, it will map out the asteroid and also analyze its specific characteristics and features. By the end of the mission, it will hopefully be more clear if Psyche was once the core of a planet or not.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Youtube/NASA

Given that Psyche is made up predominately of metal, it offers an interesting focus of study for scientists. You see, at the center of our Earth, it’s thought that there’s a core made of metal. However, we can’t actually reach this core, and thus can’t investigate it directly. As such, studying Psyche may tell us more about our own planet.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Facebook/NASA – National Aeronautics and Space Administration

So, NASA appears to be interested in Psyche for the sake of scientific investigation and discovery. As such, it’s unlikely that the metals of the asteroid will be extracted anytime soon. Having said that, though, there are those that believe space mining is just on the horizon as an economic activity.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: NASA – {{PD-US}}

Mitch Hunter-Scullion, for example, is the founder of the Asteroid Mining Corporation. This is a British-based business which apparently has plans to fire a satellite into space at some point in 2020. Then, by the start of the next decade, it hopes to begin mining out in space.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Stocktrek Images/Getty Images

Hunter-Scullion spoke with BBC Science Focus magazine in December 2018 to explain more about asteroid mining. “It’s the next boom industry,” he said. “Once you set up the infrastructure then the possibilities are almost infinite. There’s an astronomical amount of money to be made by those bold enough to rise to the challenge of the asteroid rush.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Monty Rakusen/Getty Images

In Hunter-Scullion’s view, there’s a clear financial incentive for mining asteroids. Yet there’s also, potentially, a more humanitarian argument, too. You see, much of our technology is made from certain metals found in our planet. Acquiring these is often very damaging to the Earth and its inhabitants.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: VICTOR HABBICK VISIONS/Getty Images

Hunter-Scullion elaborated on this perspective for BBC Science Focus. “On Earth, rare earth metals are mined under highly toxic and unethical conditions,” he said. “[With space mining] you can’t exploit a robot. And it moves all of the polluting industries into deep space, where there is no delicate biosphere to damage.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Stocktrek Images/Getty Images

Hunter-Scullion then went on to paint a rather utopian idea of the future. In his words, “I imagine a future where the Earth will be the protected garden of the Solar System. And all the heavily polluting industries will move off into orbital factories built around captured asteroids or lunar industrial complexes.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Ezra Bailey/Getty Images

It’s also been optimistically posited that space mining could ultimately help with our attempts to overcome the climate crisis. Materials such as platinum are important in the construction of renewable energy implements like solar panels. Yet these metals are often scarce and often difficult to mine.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Bloomberg Creative/Getty Images

Moreover, according to Hunter-Scullion, “Platinum is one of the main ingredients of catalytic converters that allow hydrogen cars to work, and normal cars to run cleaner. But it is a highly limited resource. So, if we can bring more onto the planet, then we can run more environmentally friendly cars and combat one of the major sources of climate change.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: dottedhippo/Getty Images

Yet all these potential benefits need to be tempered by the knowledge that space mining will be no easy feat. Henry Hertzfeld, who is the head of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, put it clearly in MIT Technology Review in June 2019. “The bottom line is that space is hard,” he said. “It’s risky, it’s expensive.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Bernt Ove Moss/EyeEm/Getty Images

However, let’s imagine that things went smoothly, and that space mining was to become a booming industry. How would that effect us here on Earth? Would it have negative implications? Well, some experts believe that bringing large amounts of space metal back to Earth could completely uproot our economies.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Facebook/NASA – National Aeronautics and Space Administration

This scenario, of course, doesn’t appear likely to play out any time soon, though. After all, NASA isn’t planning to begin extractions on Psyche – it merely wants to analyze it. So, as things stand, the mission will begin in July 2022. At that point, aerospace company SpaceX will fire a rocket carrying a Psyche-bound spacecraft into space.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/NASA

NASA itself has elaborated on the potential importance of Psyche in a website post. Here, it discussed how the asteroid might teach us more about the Earth and its core. As the agency put it, “Psyche offers a unique window into the violent history of collisions and accretion that created terrestrial planets.” But, of course, we’ll have to wait a few years to see what we can actually learn.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT