Step Aside Iron Man, NASA's Going to Explore a Strange Iron World

The mysterious metal asteroid Psyche may glitter green with gem-like minerals and be worth $10,000 quadrillion dollars.

In her dreams, planetary scientist Lindy Elkins-Tanton imagines asteroid 16 Psyche glistening in the sun, with cliffs stretching six- to nine miles into the sky, and yellow, orange and white sulfur lava flows snaking along its metal ground.

Psyche's surface and cliff walls could be flecked with beautiful green gem-like minerals, such as olivine and pyroxene, which formed when the metal core mixed with a long-gone rocky mantle.

Scientists suspect Psyche, located about three times farther away from the sun than Earth in the main asteroid belt, lost its rock cover during violent collisions with other bodies when the solar system was just 10 million to 20 million years old.

Computer simulations show repeated hit-and-run crashes could have left behind a nickel and iron world, the remnant core of a long-dead sister planet.

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There is so much metal on the 130-mile wide asteroid that if it could somehow be transported back to Earth, Psyche's iron alone would be worth $10,000 quadrillion dollars - roughly 100,000 times the gross national product of the entire world today, said Elkins-Tanton, lead scientist for a newly selected mission to explore Psyche.

Add in nickel, copper, cobalt, iridium, platinum, gold and rhenium at approximately the same concentrations found in iron meteorites - and presumed to exist in Psyche - and the value increases tenfold.

"Clearly, though, even if there were any way to bring it back - there is not, not even remotely - the prices would not be the same when it got here," Elkins-Tanton told Seeker. "Once you brought it here, it would completely collapse the world's steel and nickel and cobalt markets for all time and then it would be literally worthless."

The new mission, funded by NASA, will attempt to resolve Psyche's mysterious origins and shine a light on how planets and rocky bodies, including Earth, separated into core, mantle and crust.

The information also could help answer if the chemical building blocks for life are indigenous in planets, rather than delivered later by impacting comets and asteroids.

"If (planets) can get all of the water and carbon things that they need from the natural accretion process and they don't need any later additions then every rocky planet should probably be habitable to start with," said Elkins-Tanton, director of Arizona State University's School of Earth and Space Exploration.

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If Psyche is not core of a dead planet, the 130-mile wide ball of metal, could be something even more bizarre: a body that came together in a part of the inner solar system so rich in primordial metals that it had little rock from the get-go, creating a body that never melted.

"That is chemically and physically plausible, but we have no samples of such an object, no evidence that such an object would exist," Elkins-Tanton said. "My secret hope is that we get there and it turns out that's what it is and not a core because that would be just mind-blowing."

With an array of cameras, magnetometers and a gamma neutron spectrometer, the probe will collect data scientists can piece together to learn if Psyche is a core or a primordial object, whether it froze from the inside out or outside in, whether it ever had a magnetic field, and if any patches of rock on its surface are the splattered remains from the destroyed parent body or due to later impacts.

There's no chance of a sample return on this flight, but future missions could make Psyche a stopping point for water and fuel production for travel to Mars and beyond.

The solar electric-powered Psyche spacecraft, scheduled to launch in 2023, will take about 4.5 years to reach the asteroid. Its primary mission is slated to last 20 months.

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