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As NASA Observes Asteroid Psyche, Scientists Wonder How Metal It Really Is

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As NASA Observes Asteroid Psyche, Scientists Wonder How Metal It Really Is

An artist’s illustration shows what asteroid 16 Psyche would look like.

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

You may have heard of asteroid 16 Psyche thanks to a dazzling monetary figure attributed to it: $ 10,000 trillion. It’s a fantastic number based on the assumption that it is made primarily of metal, a substance that we tend to pay a lot of money for here on Earth. We may need to rethink that hypothetical value a bit.

The asteroid, which is 226 kilometers wide, was first discovered in 1852. A new study led by researchers from the The University of Arizona suggests that psyche 16 may not be as metallic and dense as previous estimates thought.

NASA has said psyche “It appears to be the exposed nickel-iron core of an early planet, one of the building blocks of our solar system.” Previous analysis of the asteroid led to an estimate that it could be up to 95% metal. The new article published in The Planetary Science Journal It puts the number at 82.5% metal with a much lower density than previously thought.

It is possible that 16 Psyche is like another famous asteroid: Bennu. Bennu is a pile of rubble that was visited by NASA’s Osiris-Rex mission, which took a sample to bring back to Earth. If 16 Psyche is similar to Bennu, that could call into question the possible origin story that it is the intact core of a primitive planet.

“The psyche as a pile of debris would be very unexpected, but our data continues to show low-density estimates despite its high metallic content.” Lead author David Cantillo, a college student at the university, said in a statement Wednesday.

The team took an unusual practical approach to estimating the composition of the asteroid. The group “recreated the 16 Psyche regolith, or loose material from the rocky surface, mixing different materials in a laboratory and analyzing light patterns until they matched telescope observations of the asteroid.” The results suggest that Psyche may have experienced collisions with other asteroids that later left a layer of deposits on its surface.

The good news is that we can expect solid answers to the questions surrounding Psyche. NASA sends a mission to visit him. SpaceX signed on to launch the Psyche spacecraft with a specific liftoff in July 2022.

If the new study on the composition of the asteroid is true, it doesn’t make Psyche any less fascinating or worth studying. “The opportunity to study an exposed nucleus of a planetesimal is extremely rare, so they are sending the spacecraft mission there,” Cantillo said, “but our work shows that 16 Psyche is much more interesting than expected.”

What about the dollar figure? It is an exercise in imagination, as we are not transporting Psyche back to Earth to melt it. But according to the University of Arizona, “the new findings could slightly devalue the iron-rich asteroid.”

Follow CNET’s 2021 Space Calendar to stay up-to-date with the latest space news this year. You can even add it to your own Google Calendar.

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