A mission to explore an asteroid the size of the state of Massachusetts that was recently approved by NASA could help clear the way for a future of space mining.
NBC News reported that the mission will visit the metallic space rock, which orbits the sun in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The mission — the first to a metal asteroid — could reveal secrets about our solar system’s earliest days.
The mission is expected to launch in 2022 with a solar-powered spacecraft travelling to the asteroid. It is expected to land in 2026. The spacecraft, called Psyche will map the surface of the asteroid, known as (16) Psyche for 21 months, using a trio of scientific instruments: a magnetometer to measure what may be left of the asteroid’s magnetic field; a spectrometer to map its chemical composition; and a camera to snap high-resolution images of the asteroid.
“We think the metallic class of asteroids are the remains of ancient cores of planets,” said Jim Bell, a planetary scientist at Arizona State University in Tempe and deputy principal investigator of NASA’s Psyche mission.
Bell said (16) Psyche could be the core of a nascent planet that lost its outer layers after colliding with another object billions of years ago. “That’s what we think this is — the exposed core of an ancient planetesimal from the early solar system,” he said, adding that studying Psyche up close could give scientists a better understanding of what lies at the center of our own planet.
Angel Abbud-Madrid, director of the Center for Space Resources at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, said he’s eager to see what the close-up look at Psyche will reveal about metal asteroids, which are relatively rare in the solar system.
“We know very little about them,” Abbud-Madrid said. “We’ve only seen these asteroids in telescopes, so these are very unique objects.”
Observations from telescopes suggest that Psyche is mostly made of nickel and iron, but Abbud-Madrid said a visiting spacecraft could also find that the space rock is abundant in metals that are even more valuable — such as gold and platinum.
This potential bounty captured the imagination of venture capitalists eager to cash in on asteroid mining, with some estimating that Psyche could contain metals with an estimated value of $700 quintillion. It also grabbed the attention of media outlets, with some calling Psyche a "golden asteroid" and others saying the space rock could turn celestial prospectors into trillionaires, NBC News reported.
But experts caution that even if Psyche holds lots of precious metal and it can be brought back to Earth — a feat that would require technology and infrastructure that don’t yet exist — the monetary value could be much lower.
“Psyche is a huge asteroid, and if it’s all highly concentrated metal, then yes, that’s an exorbitant amount,” Abbud-Madrid said. “But obviously if you bring back such a large amount, the market value will go down.”
Abbud-Madrid and Bell agreed that it might make more sense to use metal mined from Psyche in space rather than return it to Earth. “We could use metals or ice or rocky materials in the future to build settlements or build electronic components for use in space,” Bell said. “The way we prospect for those materials right now is through telescopes and sending spacecraft to these objects, so we’ll be doing some ground-truthing with the Psyche mission.”