A rare metallic asteroid about three times farther away from the sun than our planet could yield secrets about Earth’s molten core, and scientists want to learn all about it.
© MaxarASU/P. Rubin/NASA/JPL-Caltech
A new study published Monday in The Planetary Science Journal takes a closer look at this mysterious asteroid, using data from the Hubble Telescope.
Located between Mars and Jupiter, Asteroid 16 Psyche is one of the most massive objects in the asteroid belt in our solar system, and with a diameter of about 140 miles, it is roughly the same length as Massachusetts (if you exclude Cape Cod).
The exact composition of Psyche is still unclear, but scientists think it’s possible the asteroid is mostly made of iron and nickel. It’s been hypothesized that a piece of iron of its size could be worth about $10,000 quadrillion, more than the entire economy on our planet.
Scientists believe that Psyche could be the metallic core of an early planet that lost its mantle and crust due to collisions that might have occurred early in the formation of the solar system.
In 2022, NASA will send an unmanned spacecraft to Psyche to study it up close and better determine its composition.
In the meantime, the new study in The Planetary Science Journal looked at Psyche through the Hubble Telescope at two specific points in its rotation, to capture both sides of the asteroid.
The study includes the first ultraviolet observations of Psyche, furthering our understanding of its surface and its possible composition.
“We looked at the way that the ultraviolet light reflected off of the asteroid surface,” Tracy Becker told CNN. She is the lead author of the study and a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute.
“The way the ultraviolet light was reflected from Psyche was very, very similar to the way iron reflects sunlight,” she explained.
The importance of studying Psyche
Studying Psyche could help us better understand those early times in the history of our solar system, when objects would have had “higher inclinations and crazier eccentricities,” and would have had more opportunities to collide with each other, Becker told CNN.
If Psyche is the metal core of a planet that never was, studying it more closely could tell us a lot about the core of our planet, which we wouldn’t be able to explore, Becker said.
The study also detected two possible signals of changes to the surface of Psyche due to solar winds, according to Becker.
“The first one was that as we went deeper into the UV, we started to see the asteroid get brighter, which is pretty rare,” Becker said.
“In the past, when we’ve seen that on certain planetary bodies, including the moon, that often tells us that it’s due to the charge particles from the sun interacting with the materials on the surface, causing this brightening. We call that space weathering,” she added.
The second signal, according to Becker, was the detection of iron oxide ultraviolet absorption