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NASA is visiting an asteroid valued at more than the entire world economy's worth, but that's not why it's going there

Grace Eliza Goodwin,Jenny McGrath   

NASA is visiting an asteroid valued at more than the entire world economy's worth, but that's not why it's going there
  • NASA has announced a new mission to a metal-rich asteroid called 16 Psyche.
  • The metals that 16 Psyche is thought to contain would be worth $100,000 quadrillion on Earth.

NASA is visiting an asteroid in our solar system worth more than the entire world economy, but that's not why it's going there.

The space agency launched an uncrewed spacecraft today to explore the potato-shaped asteroid called Psyche.

The metal-rich chunk of rock orbits the sun from a distance of 235 million to 309 million miles away, or about three times the distance from which Earth orbits the sun, according to NASA.

Psyche, also known as 16 Psyche, was the 16th asteroid ever discovered, by an Italian astronomer named Annibale de Gasparis in 1852.

Gasparis named it after the Greek goddess of the soul, NASA said, and it's located between Mars and Jupiter.

Going where no one has gone before

NASA has never been to an asteroid quite like this — what makes Psyche so unique and different from other asteroid missions is its composition.

Scientists believe that Psyche is mostly made of rock and metal, with metal making up about 30% to 60% of the asteroid.

Some believe that Psyche contains metals like iron and nickel, a researcher who has studied the asteroid told Space.com.

The metals that Psyche is thought to contain would be worth over $100,000 quadrillion if they were found on Earth — that's more than the worth of the entire world economy, the Psyche mission's lead scientist, Lindy Elkins-Tanton, told Space.com.

But NASA isn't going to Psyche for the money, nor does it have the technology to even mine the asteroid in the first place.

Why NASA is visiting asteroid 16 Psyche

Psyche's origins are a bit of a mystery. It could be a chunk of the core of a planetesimal, a precursor to a rocky planet. Or it could be a planetesimal's entire iron-rich core.

Perhaps it's the remainder of another type of body that came from somewhere else in the solar system. Intense collisions might have caused it to shed its outer layers while our solar system was forming.

NASA's scientists are eager to learn more about Psyche, because the asteroid could provide clues to Earth's own core, including how it formed and grew.

Scientists have hints about how 16 Pysche looks thanks to a computer-generated 3D model. It seems to have two craters, but they won't know for sure until the asteroid's gravitational pull captures the spacecraft. That's expected to happen in July 2029.

Then Psyche — the spacecraft — will spend two years orbiting the asteroid, taking photos, mapping the surface, and collecting other data about its composition.

The visit could "provide a one-of-a-kind window into the violent history of collisions and accumulation of matter that created planets like our own," according to NASA.


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