Tag: asteroids

NASA Mission to 16-Psyche Asteroid 2022: Preview and Updates

The asteroid 16-Psyche contains an estimated $10,000 quadrillion worth of precious metals.

Psyche Mission Key Takeaways:

In Depth | 16 Psyche – NASA Solar System Exploration
source: NASA

–> Purpose: to study the chemical composition of the 16-Psyche asteroid.

–> For the first time ever, study a terrestrial world not made of rock and ice, but made of metal. [2]

–> To determine the asteroid’s age.

–> To analyze the topography

–> Launch Date: August 1, 2022 from the NASA Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida

–> Estimated arrival date: January 2026

–> Trip Length: 3.5 years

–> Mission Length: After reaching the asteroid, the plan is to spend 21 months in orbit studying and analyzing 16-Psyche.

The Psyche Mission: Why it Matters

“What makes the asteroid Psyche unique is that it appears to be the exposed nickel-iron core of an early planet, one of the building blocks of our solar system.” – NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

The mission is planning to explore 16-Psyche, a metallic asteroid, and will launch from a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket in August 2022.

Sending a robotic spacecraft beyond Earth orbit into deep space is always a big milestone. When dealing with distances in the neighborhood of millions of miles, we’re talking about so long of a voyage that the spacecraft components will never come back to Earth.

The Psyche mission may present unique insights for a future industry in asteroid mining.

Most asteroids that are made of rock or ice. Psyche is special, as it is composed almost entirely of metal.

Metal is much harder than rock, and perhaps would allow the morphology and crater formation on a metallic asteroid to be quite different from that of a rocky object.

Psyche holds one the the big mysteries of the universe – one of the only mainly metal object in space, how did a metal asteroid like this form?

The metallic composition is interesting because Earth’s core is made of up to 95% metal (iron and nickel) as well. Unfortunately, Earth’s core is 1864 miles bow the crust and mantle, so we can’t directly study it.

Seeking answers to the origins of an asteroid like psyche may help us unlock answers to our own planet’s formation – how might planetary cores have formed?

The metallic core of Earth is unreachable, so we can only indirectly observe its unique properties, magnetic field, etc. By exploring a metal core that resembles that of Earth, but isn’t surrounded by the mantle and crust, we may gain a better understanding of our own planet, and even the formation of other rocky planets like Earth.

The Asteroid Belt

Psyche is located within the asteroid belt, an aggregation of rocky debris of various size between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

Illustration of the location of the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
Source: spaceplace.nasa

Jupiter, with such a strong gravitational field, plays a large role in protecting Earth from experiencing too many asteroid impacts. Jupiter’s proximity to the asteroid belt means it attracts a large percentage of rogue asteroids, keeping Earth out of harm’s way.

While moving through space, asteroids and comets smash into each other at 11000 miles per hour, causing the surfaces to have contours and craters from these impacts. [11]

What Does 16-Psyche Look Like?

Humans have never visited a celestial object like this up close, so we literally can only guess what features the images might show.

16-Psyche is one if the largest metallic asteroids – an M-type asteroid, meaning it is made up of primarily metal, iron, nickel, and other substituents.

Given that the asteroid is made primarily of nickel/iron metal scientists can hypothesize that 16-Psyche may resemble nickel/iron meteorites that have hit Earth.

The 16- stands for the fact that it was the 16th asteroid discovered in centuries past.

Comparing the unexplored asteroid to meteorites that we have directly observed, we may expect to find the rock exhibiting crystal structures resembling octahedron (known as Widmanstätten patterns), and potentially even crystals embedded within the rock.

There are many M-type meteorites that have hit Earth. These may provide an example of how the 16-Psyche asteroid might look up close. Source: Wikipedia

How big is 16-Psyche?

Not a perfect sphere, Psyche has an average diameter of 139 miles across [11] and is 3% the mass of the moon.

The size of Psyche. source: Vissiniti [8]

Technologies used during the Psyche Mission

The spacecraft, named Psyche after the asteroid itself, is being built for NASA by Maxar Technologies in Palo Alto, California.

With the ultimate purpose of testing hypothesis for how 16-Psyche was formed, the spacecraft will use the following tools to study 16-Psyche asteroid:

  • multispectral imager
  • gamma-ray spectrometer
  • neutron spectrometer
  • magnetometer
  • X-Ray / radio instrument (for gravity measurement)
  • solar electric propulsion mechanism (ion thrusters)

Imaging Technologies

Multispectral imaging technologies are able to capture images including wavelength data within and beyond the visible light spectrum.

Humans are able to see between 400-700 nm wavelengths of light; however, imaging beyond these wavelengths into the UV or infrared range can allow scientists to gather information about the greater electromagnetic spectrum.

Spectrometer Technologies

Spectrometers are tools that measure light. Although there are many different types of spectrometers, the name literally means “light measuring”. The root word “spectrum” comes from Latin, meaning light. The work “meter” comes from Greek, meaning “a measure”.

The spectrometers used on this mission will identify the way that light reflects off the asteroid to identify its physical and chemical composition.

Magnetometer

An instrument used for measuring magnetic forces, especially the Earth’s magnetism.

The spacecraft will use a magnetometer to measure 16-Psyche’s magnetic field, seeing how it might resemble earth.

Propulsion System

Although NASA has used ion thrusters for deep space missions to Ceres, another asteroid, in the past, this will be the first time a mission has used hall thrusters to go into deep space, and will use Xenon gas as propellant.

Hall thrusters are a type of ion thruster that use a magnetic field to confine the flow of propellant consistent. For example, the NASA developed X3 is a type of hall-effect ion thruster.

CSU's Hall Effect Thruster Operating on Krypton
Hall thruster testing with Krypton. Source: Colorado State University

Hall thrusters are commonly used in Earth orbiting satellites. SpaceX Starlink satellites famously use hall thrusters to alter their orbit and trajectory.

Ion thrusters are the ideal propulsion system for long-term missions because they allow for a slow but consistent and energy efficient acceleration, allowing the spacecraft to reach a higher max velocity. These ion thrusters are often solar powered via electricity.

Whereas chemical propulsion (which rockets use to take off from Earth) are useful for short bursts of power to reach orbit, these systems are not ideal to sustain long-distance space travel because the fuel would take up much more space than we have room for.

If the mission leaves in August 2022 as planned, it will take 3.5 years to reach Psyche, arriving in January 2026.

In addition to determining the feasibility of possible mining missions in the future, scientists hope that studying a metal based asteroid will uncover insights into Earth’s core, which is also composed mainly of metal.

How Much Money is 16-Psyche Worth?

According to one of NASA’s principal investigators for the mission, Lindy Elkins-Tanton, the fact that an asteroid contains trillions of dollars worth of precious metals doesn’t mean that it’s going to make everyone on Earth rich.

Elkins-Tanton, who was recently interviewed by the Miami Herald, stated that although Psyche contains massive amounts of iron, nickel, copper, even gold and platinum, humans will not be able to benefit financially from it for two reasons:

  1. The logistics of mining and transporting that amount of cargo back to Earth is impossible from a practical standpoint. It would take us decades or centuries to develop and start this process.
  2. If we were to magically have all that metal on Earth, it would crash the markets due to an oversupply, making metals practically worthless.

Although the Elkins-Tanton’s logic is sound, perhaps there is a scenario where humans are able to overcome the logistics of asteroid mining for our benefit without downfalls of flooding the markets.

The way this scenario could play out is through exponential technological progress.

In the 1950s, for example, people never imagined that we would carry computers around in our pockets. We never would have imagined

In 2021, the industry for computer chips is worth around $500 billion. [10] Anyone who says we could have predicted this is lying.

Similarly, it is impossible to imagine what industries and markets will exist, or what manufacturing and commerce will look like as humans embark into the Space Age.

Perhaps someday, within a couple generations or even sooner, humans will be mining asteroids and using the materials to build unimaginable technologies that only exist in the world of science fiction today.

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Sources:

  1. NASA JPL
  2. Psyche Mission site
  3. https://arstechnica.com/science/2021/04/nasas-most-metal-mission-will-test-new-higher-power-electric-thrusters/
  4. https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/missions/dawn/technology/ion-propulsion/
  5. https://www.freethink.com/articles/hall-thruster
  6. https://spacenews.com/phase-four-launches-first-plasma-propulsion-systems/
  7. https://scitechdaily.com/nasas-electrifying-new-propulsion-systems/
  8. The Size of Psyche asteroid
  9. Psyche Asteroid Miami Herald
  10. Computer chips
  11. The Psyche mission blog on Medium