NASA goes heavy metal with visit to iron-rich asteroid

For the first time, U.S. space agency NASA is sending a spacecraft to an all-metal world.

The destination is a giant asteroid, called 16 Psyche. It is thought to be composed almost exclusively of metallic iron and nickel, similar to Earth’s core.

Scientists want to find out if 16 Psyche, located between Mars and Jupiter, is an exposed core of an early planet that lost its rocky outer layers due to a number of violent collisions billions of years ago.

An exposed planet core could unlock secrets about Earth’s core and shed light on how planets’ layers were created early in their histories.

“16 Psyche is the only known object of its kind in the solar system,” said Lindy Elkins-Tanton, the project leader from Arizona State University. “And this is the only way humans will ever visit a core. We learn about inner space by visiting outer space.”

She did a fanciful calculation that the iron alone would be worth $10,000 quadrillion. That’s a one followed by 19 zeroes, assuming today’s prices. But NASA has no plans to bring back any metal from 16 Psyche. The mission’s true value is scientific.

Drawing of asteroid in space (Peter Rubin/Arizona State University)
An artist’s rendition of metallic asteroid Psyche. (Peter Rubin/ASU)

NASA plans to launch a spacecraft (named simply Psyche) in 2023, arriving at the giant asteroid in 2030.

The Psyche mission is part of NASA’s Discovery program, which launches comparatively low-cost, experimental missions that test new ways of exploration.

Discovery is about “boldly going to places we’ve never been,” according to Thomas Zurbuchen of NASA.