Asteroid 16 Psyche is a large metal asteroid that had been discovered by the Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis on 17th March 1852 from Naples and named after the Greek mythological figure Psyche. It is one of the dozen most massive asteroids, containing about 1% of the mass of the asteroid belt, and is over 200 kilometers (120 mi) in diameter. Psyche is one of the most massive of the metal-rich M-type asteroids. It’s worth is estimated to be approximately $10,000 quadrillion. Its composition and density match Mesosiderite meteorites and it is likely their parent body. Psyche is scheduled for space exploration, targeted for January 2026. The prefix “16” signifies that it was the sixteenth minor planet in order of discovery. Psyche is a unique and rare metal asteroid that has been orbiting between Mars and Jupiter in our solar system since a long time. Only recently NASA has been able to get a closer look at the object. What makes the asteroid Psyche very unique is that it appears to be made up of the exposed nickel-iron core of an early planet that is believed to be one of the building blocks of our solar system.
Deep within the rocky, terrestrial planets, including Earth, scientists infer the presence of metallic cores, but these lie unreachably far below the planets’ rocky mantles and crusts. Because we cannot see or measure Earth’s core directly, Asteroid Psyche offers a unique window into the violent history of collisions and accretion that created terrestrial planets. The mission is led by Arizona State University.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is responsible for mission management, operations and navigation.
The spacecraft’s solar-electric propulsion chassis will be built by Maxar (formerly SSL) with a payload that includes an imager, magnetometer, and a gamma-ray spectrometer. Psyche is so massive an Asteroid that its gravitational perturbations on other asteroids can be observed, which enables a mass measurement. The values for the mass of (3.38±0.28)×10−11 M☉ and the density of 6.98±0.58 g/cm3 obtained from a 2002 analysis by Kuzmanoski and Kovačević, of a close encounter with asteroid (13206) 1997 GC22. The new, high density estimate suggests that 16 Psyche must be composed mostly of metals. As of 2019, the best mass estimate is (2.41±0.32)×1019 kg, with a derived bulk density of 3.99±0.26 g/cm3.
With the latest research, scientist at the Southwest Research Institute has observed the asteroid through the Hubble Space Telescope at two specific points in its rotation to view the both sides of it completely. The study also involves the first ultraviolet observation of asteroid Psyche, offering a clearer picture of its composition for the first time. “We’ve seen meteorites that are mostly metal, but Psyche could be unique in that it might be an asteroid that is totally made of iron and nickel,” Dr. Tracy Becker, the author of the study commented in a statement. The scientists noted that the manner in which ultraviolet light was reflected from Psyche was very similar to the way in which iron reflects sunlight.
“We were able to identify for the first time on any asteroid what we think are iron oxide ultraviolet absorption bands,” Becker further says.
“This is an indication that oxidation is happening on the asteroid, which could be a result of the solar wind hitting the surface.” The term ‘solar wind’ refers to a stream of charged particles emitted from the sun’s hot surface atmosphere, which is known as its Corona. However, the researchers pointed out that the presence of even a minute amount of iron can dominate UV observations.
Metal asteroids are not commonly found in the solar system, and scientists believe that studying 16 Psyche may offer a rare glimpse of what the inside of a planet really looks like. “To understand what really makes up a planet and to potentially see the inside of a planet is fascinating. Once we get to Psyche, we’re really going to understand if that’s the case, even if it doesn’t turn out as we expect. Any time there’s a surprise, it’s always exciting,” Beck said.