Meet Psyche, the tiny metal asteroid NASA plans to study in 2030

An Arizona State University-led mission to a metal asteroid that is scheduled to launch in 2023 will mark the first time that researchers will be able to see what is believed to be a planetary core and could shed new light on the collisions that created Earth and other terrestrial planets.

Known as the Psyche Mission, the project is expected to reach the nickel-iron metal-rich asteroid Psyche in 2030, where it will spend 20 months in orbit around the object, mapping it and looking at its properties, ASU officials announced on Wednesday. It will be part of the NASA Discovery Program, a series of lower-cost, highly-focused robotic space mission.

The mission will mark the first time that the university has been selected to lead an exploration mission for the US space agency, and will also be “the first time humans will ever be able to see a planetary core,” principal investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton, director of ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE), said in a statement. She added that the project will “help us gain insights into the metal interior of all rocky planets in our solar system, including Earth.”

Psyche is an asteroid that orbits the sun between Mars and Jupiter, and the upcoming mission to the object is designed to determine whether or not its nickel-iron composition means that it is the exposed core of a protoplanet (a building block of the sun’s planetary system). Odds are that it is the remnant of a violent space collision which occurred during the solar system’s formation.

What do scientists expect to learn from this unusual object?

Approximately the same size as the state of Massachusetts (roughly 130 miles in diameter) and dense (7,000 kg/m³), Psyche follows an orbit in the outer part of the main asteroid belt and is an average of 280 million miles from the sun – three times the distance between Earth and the Sun, according to the ASU researchers.

While the majority of planets explored by humans thus far have some mixture of ice and rock on their surfaces, it is believed that they have highly metallic cores. However, since those cores are buried deep beneath rocky mantles and crusts, it is unlikely that scientists would be able to reach them anytime soon. Psyche’s exposed metallic core, however, may provide a good alternative.

The ASU-led team plans to send a spacecraft equipped with a multispectral imager to capture a series of high-resolution images using filters that can differentiate between the asteroid’s silicate and metallic components, as well as a gamma ray and neutron spectrometer that will detect, map and measure the object’s elemental composition.

psyche spacecraft

The spacecraft will include a multispectral imager, which will provide high-resolution images using filters to differentiate between the asteroid’s metallic and silicate components. (Credit: SSL)

In addition, a magnetometer that will be operated by scientists at MIT and UCLA will be used to detected and measure Psyche’s remnant magnetic field of the asteroid, and the probe will also be equipped with an X-band radio telecommunications system that will measure the gravity field of the object. This data, combined with topography derived from onboard imagery, will provide the research team with detailed information about Psyche’s interior structure.

“Human kind has visited rocky worlds and icy worlds, but we’ve never seen a metal world,” Elkins-Tanton told reporters, including Gizmodo, during a conference call. She said the planet’s appearance “remains a mystery,” and added “one of the most important things we’ll discover are what are the surface conditions on a metal asteroid are like,” which could reveal how difficult it would be to eventually mine such an asteroid.


Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech