This Rare Asteroid May Be Worth 70,000 Times the Global Economy. Now NASA Is Sending a Spaceship to Explore It.

NASA’s mission to an asteroid that could be worth 70,000 times the global economy is expected to begin this year.

Back in 2017 the agency decided that humankind would benefit from a closer look at 16 Psyche and the mission was initially slated to take place at the end of 2022 but was delayed due to “development problems.” NASA is now planning to launch the Psyche spacecraft this October: The vessel should reach its target in August 2029.

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Here’s everything we know so far about the Psyche asteroid, the upcoming Psyche mission and the Psyche spacecraft.

What Is 16 Psyche?

Psyche 16 Asteroid
Artist’s concept of the asteroid 16 Psyche.

Named after the Greek goddess of the soul, Psyche was discovered by Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis on March 17, 1852. The giant M-Type asteroid is thought to be the partial core of a small planet that failed to fully form during the earliest days of our solar system.

The metal-rich asteroid is about the size of Massachusetts—its average diameter is about 140 miles—and seems to be shaped somewhat like a potato. It orbits between Mars and Jupiter at a distance ranging from 235 million to 309 million miles from the Sun. (You can get a real-time simulated view of Psyche here.)

A study published by The Planetary Science Journal in 2020 suggests that Psyche is made almost entirely of iron and nickel—most astroids are usually comprised of rock or ice—which suggests it could originally have been part of a planetary core. That would not only represent a pretty wild discovery, it’s key to Psyche’s potential astronomical value: NASA scientist Lindy Elkins-Tanton calculated that the iron in the asteroid alone could be worth as much as $10 quadrillion, which is $10,000,000,000,000,000,000 (yes, a 20-figure sum). For context, at the time of writing, the entire global economy is worth roughly $110 trillion. However, more recent research out of the University of Arizona suggests that the space rock might not be as metallic or dense as once thought—Psyche could actually be closer to a rubble pile, rather than an exposed planetary core, which would see that valuation plummet. The upcoming mission should settle the debate about Pysche’s composition for once and all.

Of course, Psyche isn’t the only valuable rock in space. NASA has previously said the belt of asteroids between Mars and Jupiter holds mineral wealth equivalent to about $100 billion for every individual on Earth. Which is nice and all, but not entirely helpful: Mining the precious metals within each asteroid and successfully getting them back down to earth is going to present some challenges, not to mention supply and demand issues… We’ll leave the complexities of space mining for another day.

Why Is NASA Traveling to 16 Psyche?

NASA Psyche Spacecraft
NASA’s Psyche spacecraft in December 2022.

If Psyche is, in fact, the leftover core of a planet that never properly formed, it could reveal secrets about Earth’s own core. The interior of terrestrial planets is normally hidden beneath the mantle and crust, but Psyche has no such outer layers. The asteroid’s mantle and crust were likely stripped away by multiple violent collisions during the genesis ofour solar system. By examining Psyche, we can shed further light on how Earth’s core came to be as well the formation of our solar system and the planetary systems around other stars.

What Is the Psyche Spacecraft, and How Does It Work?

Technicians at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida perform work on the agency’s Psyche spacecraft inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHSF) on May 3, 2022. While inside the PHSF, the spacecraft will undergo routine processing and servicing ahead of launch. Psyche is targeting to lift off aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket on Aug. 1, 2022. The spacecraft will use solar-electric propulsion to travel approximately 1.5 billion miles to rendezvous with its namesake asteroid in 2026. The Psyche mission is led by Arizona State University. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is managed for the agency by Caltech in Pasadena, California, is responsible for the mission’s overall management, system engineering, integration and testing, and mission operations. Maxar Technologies in Palo Alto, California, provided the high-power solar electric propulsion spacecraft chassis. NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP), based at Kennedy, is managing the launch. Psyche will be the 14th mission in the agency's Discovery program and LSP’s 100th primary mission.
Technicians at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida perform work on Psyche.

Measuring 10 feet by 8 feet, Psyche is a little larger than a smart car. Instead of running on traditional rocket fuel, the spacecraft will produce its own solar energy. It’s fitted with large solar panels, which make it as big as a tennis court once deployed, that will generate electricity to power the ion drive and the innovative new Hall thruster. Essentially, the electricity from the solar panels is used to convert the fuel source (xenon gas) to xenon ions that are expelled to provide thrust. (The xenon propellant also produces a cool blue glow.) Pysche will gradually build up speed using ion propulsion. The spacecraft will also swing past Mars for a gravitational push during its voyage to the asteroid.

In addition, Psyche will be equipped with an array of futuristic tech. The spacecraft will test out something called “Deep Space Optical Communication,” in which messages are encoded on photons (particles of light) instead of radio waves. It could mean transmitting far more data back to Earth in a given amount of time.

Also on board will be a gamma ray and neutron spectrometer to identify the types of materials in Psyche; a magnetometer to measure the asteroid’s magnetic field; and a multi-spectral imager to capture high-resolution snaps. To top it off, Psyche will use radio waves to measure the asteroid’s gravity. This, combined with maps of the asteroid’s surface features, should give us some more intel about the asteroid’s interior structure.

How Much Will the Psyche Mission Cost?

NASA Psyche Spacecraft
The Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) Chassis of NASA’s Psyche spacecraft.

NASA says the total life-cycle mission costs for Psyche (including the rocket) are $985 million. A total of $717 million has already been spent on the project as of last July.

How Long Will the Psyche Mission Take?

NASA Psyche Spacecraft
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.

Psyche will cover some 280 million miles to reach its namesake asteroid. The spacecraft is expected to launch on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket in October 2023. The craft will aim for a gravity assist from Mars in 2026 to help it along the next stage of the journey. It will then spend 21 months measuring and mapping, gradually tightening its orbit until it passes just above Psyche’s surface. If all goes to plan, Psyche will arrive at the asteroid in August 2029. NASA says the mission team continues to complete testing of the spacecraft’s flight software in preparation for the October launch date. Godspeed, Psyche.

Check out a NASA video about the Psyche mission below:

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