The wealth is out there.
A single asteroid floating through our solar system might be worth more than the Earth’s entire global economy, based on new scans conducted with the Hubble Space Telescope.
The extremely rare asteroid, dubbed 16 Psyche, is thought to be the once-molten metal core of a planet that never quite formed, according to NASA. It’s a gigantic potato-shaped object floating in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, measuring about 232 kilometres wide.
It would probably be bigger than Nova Scotia if it were placed in the Atlantic Ocean, based on NASA’s estimated dimensions.
Most asteroids are composed of ice and rock, but a new study suggests asteroid 16 Psyche might be almost entirely made of metal — though it’ll probably be a long time before humans figure out how to mine it.
“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 Tracy Becker, of the Southwest Research Institute, 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.”
In other words, it might be like a smashed Kinder Surprise egg: all prize, no chocolate shell.
Becker and her team pointed the Hubble telescope at 16 Psyche and scanned its surface on two separate occasions. They used the Hubble’s spectrograph to examine the asteroid on the ultraviolet (UV) spectrum, which makes it much easier to spot metals from afar.
The scans revealed that 16 Psyche’s surface is almost entirely composed of iron, with several big splotches of iron oxide, or rust, splashed across it.
Becker and her team pointed out that iron tends to light up brightly on UV scans, so even a small amount would dominate their observations.
Nevertheless, the images add to the growing body of evidence that 16 Psyche might be a rare hunk of metals dating back to the birth of the solar system.
If the object is a failed planet, it could offer researchers some insight into the molten metal core at the centre of the Earth. Our planet’s inner core is basically a liquid sphere of nickel and iron measuring 2,442 kilometres in diameter, according to NASA.
The space agency is already planning to launch a spacecraft toward the asteroid in 2022, in hopes of scraping its surface to find out if all that glitters is iron.
Lindy Elkins-Tanton, NASA’s lead scientist on the mission, told Global News in 2017 that the asteroid might be worth up to US$10,000 quadrillion.
That’s a one with 19 zeroes after it.
However, she also said there’s no plan — and no technology — to bring the floating treasure trove back to Earth. Yet.
“Even if we could grab a big metal piece and drag it back here … what would you do?” she said.
Elkins-Tanton and her team will launch their Psyche mission in 2022, then use Mars’ gravity to slingshot the spacecraft toward the asteroid for a 2026 arrival.
“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.”