It floats between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter and exhibits exceptional characteristics: Psyche 16 is made entirely of metals. Which, at current prices, gives it the incredible value of 630 trillion euros! However, this is not the reason why NASA will send an orbiter there in 2022. It’s more because it could be the Earth-like core of an ancient planet. And we would learn a lot about the formation of the solar system.
It was discovered in 1852 by the Italian astronomer Annibale De Gasparis, who had no idea of having spotted such a wealth in his telescope. It will be necessary to wait for the Hubble telescope to realize that this giant asteroid, one of the ten largest of the belt, which has almost 2 million a kilometer long minimum, is indeed very particular.
The Psyche mission will leave in August 2022 with the aim of observing, for the first time, an asteroid almost entirely made of metals. This is what makes Psyche 16 so rare because almost all of these wandering bodies are usually clumps of rocks or ice. However, this one is mainly composed of iron, nickel, probably gold… and rhenium. At current prices for these materials, this represents a gigantic value: 7 million times that of world GDP, which was $ 84,798 billion in 2019. Asteroids are dust of matter that have aggregated. As they form, they collect heavy elements forged over billions of previous years, in the very heart of the stars which, by exploding at the end of their life, disperse them throughout the universe. This is how metals like gold, silver, platinum were born, just like oxygen, carbon and the other elements that make us up.
Understanding how the heart of the earth works
The study of Psyche 16 has no “mercantile” purpose, even in the very long term. On the other hand, it will give the opportunity to approach an unknown “world” and especially to be able to study the Earth. Yes, the Earth. Because at 3,000 kilometers deep, so impossible to observe directly, is the nucleus of our planet, which, like Psyche 16, is made of an alloy of metals. Studying Psyche 16 will come down to understanding better how the heart of the Earth works. In particular why the magnetism of the poles is reversed over time.
In a future where one will take a spaceship as one gets into a car, the fortune contained in this asteroid could be the object of fierce struggles, even wars. Or not … Because, once “brought back” to Earth, all this wealth would plunge the prices of iron, nickel and other metals there. Psyche 16 is therefore of inestimable value. As long as he stays away from Earth.
“The first mining operations will take place on the Moon”
Linda T. Elkins-Tanton Professor at the University of Arizona and instigator of the Psyche project
Paris Mach. Since it is pointless, given its composition, to take samples, why is it useful to send a probe around Psyche 16?
Linda T. Elkins-Tanton. Psyche 16 is so far away, three times the distance between Earth and the Sun, that even the Hubble telescope can only “see” 2 pixels. In orbit, we’ll learn so much more. Starting with its exact shape, of which we have no precise model, seen from the Earth. Its magnetic characteristics, too, are impossible to study, unless you approach and measure them. It would have been possible to take samples because there are very likely rocky portions on Psyche 16. And probably even pieces scattered on its surface. But, once again, the distance is so great that imagining a mission with returned samples would be prohibitive. [la mission coûte en l’état 450 millions de dollars, NDLR]. The Osiris Rex mission will bring back samples of an asteroid, but which orbiting at a distance “close” to Earth. Our probe will take three years to reach Psyche, to give you an order of magnitude.
We’re going to do basic science there
In theory, would it be possible to send a ship that would push Psyche 16 closer to Earth, making it possible to operate in the near future?
Right now we don’t have that technological capability to push asteroids any more than we are able to place them in a desired orbit.
The exploitation of mineral resources in space seems to be within reach. What is the deadline?
I can only tell you about the Psyche mission, the goal of which is absolutely not its mining. We are going to do basic science there, understand how the blocks of matter form a planet. This information will later be used to be used by future missions. Whatever the purpose. The first mining operations will take place on the Moon and on asteroids at a reasonable distance from Earth. Not on Psyche.
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