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Countdown to Psyche mission launch

Heading to priceless discovery for science and space mining Metal Tech News – September 13, 2023

At T-minus 25 days until the launch of the Psyche, the technicians behind this first mission to a metal-rich asteroid beyond the orbit of Mars can barely contain their excitement.

"It's getting increasingly real," said Henry Stone, Psyche's project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. "We are counting the days. The team is more than ready to send this spacecraft off on its journey, and it's very exciting."

No stranger to playing the long game, NASA missed its previous window, pushing the launch to this year.

Beyond the ambitious scope of the mission, the Psyche team is excited about the technology that it will launch into the cosmos aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket on Oct. 5 and the scientific discoveries that will be made when the craft arrives at the asteroid of the same name – 16 Psyche – about six years later.

"These missions take so many people and so much meticulous, rigorous, personally driven work," said Lindy Elkins-Tanton, principal investigator for Psyche at Arizona State University. "I am ready to be ecstatic. We all are, but we are not ecstatic yet. Let's launch and establish communications – then we can scream, jump, and hug each other!"

Priceless data

16 Psyche is the largest-ever observed M-type (metallic) asteroid suspected to be composed mainly of iron and nickel – possibly gold – instead of the silicate rocks that make up most other asteroids. The mission will attempt to clarify its unusual metallic nature and determine if it truly is the remnant of a rare planetary core, which would give insight into our own planet's makeup.

Due to unclear readings at such a distance, scientists have found it difficult to ascertain the exact composition of the asteroid. Its highly reflective surface suggests that it is composed mostly of metal. However, gravitational interaction with nearby space objects suggests it is less dense than expected and may be a loose ball of shiny gravel or even something more akin to steel wool than a cooled blob of once-molten metals.

NASA's plan is to gather as much information as possible, not only for science but to share with the growing private space industry as well. Data gathered can also help to develop asteroid mining technologies for resources useful both on Earth and in-space manufacturing.

About an hour into its six-year journey to Psyche, the space exploration vehicle will begin to unfurl the largest solar array ever installed at JPL, an 800-square-foot cross-shaped solar array. Once this is fully deployed, Psyche will be the size of a tennis court and will be able to generate around 21 kilowatts of electricity – similar to powering around four average U.S. homes.

When the craft reaches its namesake destination, however, the solar panels will only be able to eke out about two kilowatts from the distant starlight, about enough to run a blow dryer. This will provide all the power for the journey to asteroid Psyche and run the battery of scientific instruments aboard the craft once it reaches its destination.

This will be plenty of power to set the Psyche craft into an orbit around its namesake asteroid and begin studying the space rock using a multispectral imager, a gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer, a magnetometer, and a radio instrument (for gravity measurement). The mission's main goal is to determine whether Psyche is indeed the exposed core of a small protoplanet that had its rocky outer layers stripped off.

Fool's gold?

16 Psyche's metallic composition has been valued from quadrillions to quintillions of dollars, catching the imagination of many a fledgling asteroid mining company and its investors.

However, a paper published in the Journal of Geophysical Research by researchers from Purdue and Brown University last year details new findings using advanced computer models.

"What we wanted to do with this study was see whether it was possible for an iron body the size of Psyche to maintain that near-50 percent porosity," explained Fiona Nichols-Fleming, a Ph.D. student at Brown and the study's lead author. "We found that it's very unlikely."

Nichols-Fleming and the team from Brown and Purdue created a computer model based on the known thermal properties of metallic iron. One theory is that 16 Psyche is a ferrovolcanic object, meaning that volcanic activity on the asteroid might have brought large amounts of its core to the surface, giving Psyche a metallic outer coating and a less impressive rocky interior.

If the team's estimates are found to be true, prospective miners will have the asteroid equivalent of gold-plated alloy on their hands – shiny but mostly worthless. While the new research doesn't provide any better estimates on the number or type of heavy metals contained in 16 Psyche, it's likely value estimations will still have to be marked down dramatically.

But the near-Earth neighborhood is far from empty of treasures. Future space miners can set their sights on other shiny alternatives such as 1986 DA, with an estimated value of $11.65 trillion, or others.

Even without metals or gems, the value of materials for in-situ resource utilization is increasing as companies devise ways to build in space with ingredients on hand rather than shipping supplies around in rockets.

And whether Psyche 16 turns out to be a solid chunk of metal worth thousands of times more than Earth's annual economy or a metal-plated bauble, the data gained from the Psyche mission will provide information about our solar system as we travel to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

You can read more information on the research of 16 Psyche's composition here.


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