NASA to Explore an Asteroid Containing Enough Mineral Wealth to Collapse the World Economy

We think of asteroids as giant useless rocks floating around space. Perhaps it’s a good place to hide the Millennium Falcon or a worrisome cause of a cataclysmic event. Though most are hunks of rock or ice, some are replete with iron, platinum, gold, and other precious minerals. Two NASA missions plan to explore such an asteroid, scheduled for 2021 and 2023. These are part of NASA’s Discovery Program, a class of mission considered inexpensive, capping out at $450 million apiece.

Scientists will first launch a robotic spacecraft named Lucy in October 2021. The plan is to reach a Massachusetts-size asteroid, named 16 Psyche, which is made up almost entirely of nickel and iron—much like the Earth’s core. 

Scientists say this metallic monolith is so enormous, it’s considered a minor planet. Psyche is about 130 miles (210 km.) in diameter. It’s located in the Trojan asteroid belt, between Jupiter and Saturn.

This kind of asteroid has never been studied before, according to Thomas Zurbuchen. He’s the associate administrator at NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "This is what Discovery Program missions are all about,” Zurbuchen said, “boldly going to places we've never been to enable groundbreaking science." Lucy will take six years to get there. Once it’s arrived, it will spend 20 months mapping and studying the asteroid.

The Eros asteroid. 
Psyche's mission is set to launch an entire new industry which could target bodies like this one, nearby Earth. 

Jupiter has two groups of asteroids caught in its orbit. It takes the gas giant 12 years to travel around the sun, with a parade of asteroids leading it, and another trailing behind. Lucy will reach Jupiter’s asteroid belt by 2025. Over the course of eight years, it will study six Trojan asteroids in all. By examining the target asteroid 16 Psyche carefully, NASA researchers believe they can peak back almost 10 million years, shortly after the birth of the sun.

Harold F. Levison is principal investigator of the Lucy mission. He hails from the Southwest Research Institute in Colorado. Levison said, "Because the Trojans are remnants of the primordial material that formed the outer planets, they hold vital clues to deciphering the history of the solar system. Lucy, like the human fossil for which it is named, will revolutionize the understanding of our origins." 16 Psyche may be a piece of an ancient protoplanet once as big as Mars, which shattered into pieces over billions of years, due to bombardments and collisions with other bodies, a common occurrence after the birth of our solar system. Today, it’s sort of an astronomical fossil.

Another robotic spacecraft named Psyche will follow in October 2023. After an Earth gravity assist maneuver in 2024, it will shoot past Mars in 2025, and reach the asteroid by 2030. Scientists from Arizona State University will collaborate with NASA on this mission. Lindy Elkins-Tanton of ASU is its principal investigator.



Eros Asteroid


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