What is a $ 10,000 billion asteroid the size of Cyprus really made of?

A massive asteroid estimated to be worth around $ 10,000 billion may not be what we once thought, with a new scientific study upsetting some previous understandings of its makeup.

Asteroid 16 Psyche has long been considered an M-type asteroid, the largest of its kind. It resides in the asteroid belt between the planets Mars and Jupiter. Its size cannot be underestimated, with a diameter of around 227 kilometers. For reference this would make it longer than the maximum length of the whole island of Cyprus.

In fact, 16 Psyche is so massive that it exhibits gravitational disturbances observable on other asteroids in the belt.

And that’s what really sheds light on what makes this asteroid so special, because through these gravitational disturbances one could calculate the mass and the density, and from there, estimate its composition.

As type M, 16 Psyche was considered to be the fragment of a nucleus of a proto-planet, which is said to have shattered during the formation of the solar system. These cores are rich in metals.

But this asteroid is not only rich in metals. In fact, that would be a drastic understatement. According to studies published in the academic periodical, the Journal of Planetary Sciences (PSJ), 16 Psyche is so filled with what is probably iron and nickel that the asteroid itself is probably worth around $ 10,000 billion.

For context, this is worth more than the entire world economy.

This composition was deduced after the researchers used ultraviolet light to observe Psyche.

“We looked at how ultraviolet light reflected off the asteroid’s surface,” senior author Tracy Becker, a planetologist at the Southwest Research Institute, told CNN.

“The way that ultraviolet light was reflected by Psyche was very, very similar to the way iron reflects sunlight.”

But new studies have shed even more light on this mysterious asteroid and raised questions about its true nature.

A PSJ A study by scientists at Caltech succeeded in establishing the very first temperature map of its surface. The researchers found that 16 Psyche had an unusually dense or conductive surface, but the amount of heat it gave off was 60% less than they had expected. As a result, they concluded that there was no less than 30% metal. In other words, the core may be metallic, but the surface appears to be very rocky with fragments of metal mixed in.
“We have known for many years that objects in this class are not, in fact, solid metal, but what they are and how they were formed remains an enigma,” said lead author Catherine de Kleer. in a press release from Caltech.
As such, it raises a lot of questions regarding the exact makeup of 16 Psyche and if it really is the nucleus of a proto-planet. The reason for this is that the composition appears to be porous, as in a larger object that shattered and then the fragments re-accumulated, a process that would result in a mash of rocky and metallic pieces. Smaller asteroids like this do exist, but, as astronomer Phil Plait noted, 16 Psyche is 100 times bigger than them, and it’s not clear whether such a large porous asteroid is possible.
So what else could it be? According to the new study, the asteroid appears to be rail-volcanic. “Railsolcanoes are eruptions of molten iron,” Plait wrote in his blog about 16 Psyche. “[The paper’s authors’] The idea is that the core remained molten while the surface cooled into a rocky crust, but the molten metal would have burst where the crust was thinner. appears that the rocky surface contains mixed metal fragments.

However, due to the difficulty of studying 16 Psyche from Earth – the study itself was only successful through the use of the Large Millimeter / submillimeter Array (ALMA) from Atacama, Chile – it did not maybe not easy to get answers.

But NASA might just have a way.
The long-awaited mission of the US space agency to the asteroid – which its website proclaims: “For the first time, we are exploring a world made not of rock or ice, but of metal” – is expected to launch a spaceship in July. 2022, which should arrive in 2026. The purpose of this mission is to find out what this asteroid is really made of. And if it really is the nucleus of a protoplanet, it could help shed light on the nature of Earth’s planetary nucleus.

In addition, many also wonder about the economic value of an asteroid made up of $ 10,000 billion in iron and nickel. But as explained in 2020 Lindy Elkins-Tanton, the principal investigator of the NASA mission and the one who found the value of 10 trillion dollars, there is no question of bringing the asteroid back to Earth.

“We cannot bring Psyche back to Earth. We have absolutely no technology to do it,” she told CNN at the time, adding that even if it was possible to bring her back, it would literally destroy Earth and figuratively would destroy the market. However, this could be the next step towards possibly launching mining missions to asteroids and other near-Earth objects.


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