Science 4 min read

NASA's Chasing Psyche 16, an Asteroid Worth Quintillions of Dollars

Johan Swanepoel /

Johan Swanepoel /

As leftovers from the Solar System formation, asteroids can help us answer some of the existential questions we have. And they can make us rich too like in the case of asteroid Psyche 16.

Besides the fact that these huge space rocks might be holding precursors to organic life, asteroids also contain staggering quantities of precious metals.

In the last 20 years, both NASA and The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) have launched several asteroid sample-return missions like the OSIRIS-REx mission to asteroid Bennu and the Hayabusa program.

Next in NASA’s asteroid schedule is DART, an impact test mission to asteroid Didymos. There’s also Lucy, a flyby mission to multiple trojan asteroids. Both missions are set for 2021.

Then, in 2022, there’s the highly anticipated Psyche mission.

Psyche 16 is a Metal World, and NASA Wants a Piece of it

Discovered in 1852, Psyche 16 is a giant M-Type asteroid. Meaning, its composition is mostly metallic, as opposed to other rocky and icy asteroids. It’s named after the Greek goddess Psyche.

With a diameter of about 140 miles and a mass less than 1% of the moon, Psyche 16 is one of the most massive asteroids known in the asteroid belt.

Rich in gold, iron, and nickel, Psyche 16 has been on the radar of NASA for years, and now we’re getting closer to the Psyche mission’s 2022 launch date.

Psyche 16’s metal composition is quite similar to Earth’s core. This led NASA scientists to believe that it could be a planetary core of an early Mars-sized planet. One whose rocky mantle and crust were stripped away billions of years ago by violent collisions.

Built and operated by NASA JPL, the Psyche spacecraft will be equipped with some of the most advanced tools for space exploration and observation. Its arsenal includes a multispectral imager, a gamma-ray, a neutron spectrometer, a magnetometer, and an x-band gravity science.

The mission will also take the opportunity to test “a sophisticated new laser communication technology that encodes data in photons (rather than radio waves) to communicate between a probe in deep space and Earth.”

Among Psyche’s mission objectives is determining whether the asteroid is an exposed heart of a planet or unmelted material. The mission will also map the asteroid’s topography, determine its age, and look for clues as to the conditions under which it was formed.

“This intriguing asteroid is now the primary target of the Psyche mission. Targeted to launch in August of 2022, the Psyche spacecraft would arrive at the asteroid in early 2026, following a Mars gravity assist in 2023. Over 21 months in orbit, the spacecraft will map and study 16 Psyche’s properties using a multispectral imager, a gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer, a magnetometer, and a radio instrument (for gravity measurement). The mission’s goal is, among other things, to determine whether Psyche is indeed the core of a planet-sized object,” says NASA.

It could well be Psyche 16, believed to hold up to $700 quintillion worth of metals, which will launch the asteroid mining race. This sum would make every living person on Earth a billionaire, each getting around a trillion dollars.

Billionaire earthlings, like Elon Musk, already have their sights set on asteroids. Last April, SpaceX has even garnered a $69 million contract by NASA to provide rocket launch service for the Double Asteroid Redirection Test mission, the DART as mentioned earlier.

DART mission’s main objective is to see whether deflecting an asteroid by colliding a spacecraft into it is possible. While this is an asteroid deflection mission, the fact that Musk could get a Falcon 9 rocket to an asteroid is like a rehearsal for future asteroid mining launch services.

Read More: How to Become an Asteroid Mining Trillionaire

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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