Between Mars and Jupiter lies an incredibly rare metallic asteroid that is worth more than the entire world economy. The Hubble Space Telescope has now provided us with a closer look at the object, which is estimated to be worth $10 quadrillion dollars.
New research published this week in The Planetary Science Journal looks deeper than ever before into the secrets of the asteroid 16 Psyche, one of the solar system’s most enormous objects in the main asteroid belt around Mars and Jupiter, roughly 230 million miles from Earth. It has a diameter of around 140 miles or nearly the size of Massachusetts.
The majority of asteroids consist of rock or ice. But 16 Psyche is dense and composed mostly of metal, likely the remnant core of a planet that never fully formed — a so-called “protoplanet” whose mantle was stripped away by collisions that revealed its core.
This research represents the first ultraviolet (UV) observations of the celestial body. The asteroid may be composed completely of iron and nickel, which are present in the dense cores of planets, according to new findings.
“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 examined the asteroid at two points throughout its rotation in order to examine the UV wavelength information of both sides. They discovered that the surface may be composed mostly of iron, but cautioned that even a modest quantity of iron would dominate UV data.
“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.”
The solar wind is the movement of charged particles across the solar system from the sun’s upper atmosphere, known as the corona. It is responsible for comet tails, aurora formations, and the putative “space weathering” of Psyche.
Researchers also reported that the asteroid grew more reflective at deeper UV wavelengths, which may indicate its age.
“This is something that we need to study further,” Becker said. “This could be indicative of it being exposed in space for so long. This type of UV brightening is often attributed to space weathering.”
Metal asteroids are uncommon, therefore Psyche gives a fascinating chance for scientists to examine the inside of a planet. NASA intends to send the unmanned spacecraft Psyche on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket in 2022 in order to investigate the asteroid in an effort to understand its history and that of related asteroids. This will be the first time a mission will visit a fully metallic body.
In January 2026, the orbiter will arrive at the asteroid to investigate it for about two years. The head of the project at Arizona State University thinks that the iron alone would be worth $10,000 quadrillion dollars on the current market.
“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.