Hubble Telescope provides insight to iron and nickel asteroid worth $10,000 quadrillion

October 29, 2020

NASA’s Hubble Telescope has captured the clearest images yet of a massive asteroid that is believed to be comprised of iron and nickel and worth an estimated $10,000 quadrillion, more than the current entire global economy.

Psyche 16, a heavy-metal object orbiting between Mars and Jupiter is 370 million km (230 million miles) from Earth and measures 226 km (140 miles) across. While most asteroids are comprised of ice and rock, Psyche 16 is possibly a protoplanet, or the core of a planet that never formed because it was

CBS News reported that a new study this week in The Planetary Science Journal marks the first ultraviolet (UV) observations of the celestial object. New data reveals the asteroid may be made entirely of iron and nickel — found in the dense cores of planets.

“We’ve seen meteorites that are mostly metal, but Psyche could be unique in that it might be an asteroid that is totally made of iron and nickel,” lead author Dr. Tracy Becker said in a statement. “Earth has a metal core, a mantle and crust. It’s possible that as a Psyche protoplanet was forming, it was struck by another object in our solar system and lost its mantle and crust.”

Scientists studied the asteroid at two points in its rotation in order to view the details of both sides completely at UV wavelengths. They found the surface could be mostly iron, but warned that even a small amount of iron would dominate UV observations.

“We were able to identify for the first time on any asteroid what we think are iron oxide ultraviolet absorption bands,” Becker said. “This is an indication that oxidation is happening on the asteroid, which could be a result of the solar wind hitting the surface.”

Metal asteroids are rare, so Psyche provides researchers with an exciting opportunity to study the inside of a planet. In 2022, NASA plans to launch the unmanned spacecraft Psyche on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket to study the asteroid in an attempt to understand its history and that of similar objects — the first time a mission will visit a body made entirely of metal.

The orbiter is set to arrive at the asteroid in January 2026 to study it for nearly two years. The mission's leader at Arizona State University estimates that the iron alone on today's market would be worth $10,000 quadrillion.

“What makes Psyche and the other asteroids so interesting is that they're considered to be the building blocks of the solar system,” Becker said. “To understand what really makes up a planet and to potentially see the inside of a planet is fascinating. Once we get to Psyche, we’re really going to understand if that's the case, even if it doesn't turn out as we expect. Any time there's a surprise, it's always exciting.”

Researchers told CBS News in 2017, when the mission was confirmed, that they don't plan to take advantage of the value of the asteroid's composition.

“We’re going to learn about planetary formation, but we are not going to be trying to bring any of this material back and using it for industry,” Carol Polanskey, project scientist for the Psyche mission, said at the time.

Photo Courtesy of Maxar/ASU/P. Rubin/NASA/JPL-Caltech The massive asteroid 16 Psyche is the subject of a new study by SwRI scientist Tracy Becker, who observed the object at ultraviolet wavelengths.

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