NASA's Newest Mission Is An 'Opportunity To Explore A New Type Of World'

With each subsequent mission, we learn more about the universe around us.

NASA has announced its plan to send a robotic spacecraft to 16 Psyche, a mysterious metal-rich asteroid that may be a remnant of a planet from billions of years ago.

Slated to launch in October of 2023, the mission — named Psyche — holds particular interest because of 16 Psyche's iron and nickel core. That makeup, according to NASA, is so like Earth's core that it could indicate 16 Psyche was a planet similar to ours that suffered numerous interplanetary collisions billions of years ago. 

"This is an opportunity to explore a new type of world — not one of rock or ice, but of metal," Psyche principal investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton of Arizona State University in Tempe said on NASA's website. "16 Psyche is the only known object of its kind in the solar system, and this is the only way humans will ever visit a core. We learn about inner space by visiting outer space."

The mission was announced alongside a separate plan for a robotic spacecraft mission in October of 2021, this one to explore a series of asteroids in Jupiter's orbit. 

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According to NASA, the asteroid itself is about 130 miles in diameter. Unlike most asteroids, which have an icy or rock body, the fact this one is comprised of metallic and iron has roused researchers' curiosity. Scientists have hypothesized the asteroid is an "exposed core" of a planet that was previously the size of Mars, and has since lost its outer layer because of "violent collisions" that occurred over billions of years ago.

Along with the iron and nickel, there is reason to believe the asteroid may also be rich in valuable rare metals like gold, platinum, copper, cobalt, iridium and rhenium. If NASA were to magically bring the asteroid back to Earth, the iron alone would be worth an estimated $10,000 quadrillion, according to Elkins-Tanton. The entire gross world product (GWP) in 2015 was a mere $73.7 trillion. 

Despite a planned launch of 2023, the spacecraft won't arrive on the asteroid until 2030. It will require an "Earth gravity assist spacecraft maneuver in 2024 and a Mars flyby in 2025," NASA said in its press release.

Along with funding Psyche, NASA opted to extend funding for Near Earth Object Camera (NEOCam), a program that uses a powerful telescope to monitor asteroids close to planet Earth in the event they became a hazard.

"JPL is delighted with the news that Psyche will be moving forward and for the additional support for the development of NEOCam,"  Jet Propulsion Laboratory director Mike Watkins said. "These two exciting and important missions will provide far greater understanding of the role asteroids play in our solar system."

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