In the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter lies an incredibly rare metallic asteroid that is worth more than the entire global economy.
The Hubble Telescope has given us a closer look at the object, which is estimated to be worth $10 quadrillion.
A research published in The Planetary Science journal looks deeper than ever into the mysteries of asteroid Psyche, one of the solar system's most massive objects in the asteroid belt around Mars and Jupiter, some 230 million miles away from Earth.
The diameter of this very precious cosmic object is about 140 miles, or roughly the size of Massachusetts (USA).
Most asteroids are made of rock or ice. But this assumption turns out to be false in the case of Psyche, it is made from metal, possibly the remnant core of a planet that never fully formed, so it called "protoplanet" whose mantle was torn away by collisions that reveal its core.
This research represents the first ultraviolet (UV) observations of a celestial body. According to new findings, this asteroid may be composed entirely of iron and nickel, which are present in the dense cores of the planets.
"We have observed meteorites that are mostly made of metal, but Psyche may be unique, possibly composed entirely of iron and nickel," lead author Dr. Tracy Baker said in a statement. "Earth has a metal core, a mantle and a crust. It is possible that Psyche was forming as a protoplanet, it collided with another object in our solar system and lost its mantle and crust."
To examine the UV wavelength information on both sides, the scientists examined the asteroid at two points during its rotation. The scientists found that the asteroid's surface may be composed of most iron, but cautioned that even a minor amount of iron would dominate the UV data.
"We were able to identify for the first time on any asteroid what we think are iron oxide ultraviolet absorption bands," Baker said. "This is a sign that oxidation is occurring on the asteroid, which may be the result of the solar wind hitting the surface."
The solar wind is the movement of charged particles from the Sun's upper atmosphere into the Solar System, called the corona. It is responsible for comet tails, aurora formations, and "space weathering" of Psyche.
The researchers also reported that the asteroid reflected more at darker UV wavelengths, which could indicate its age.
"This is something we need to study further," Baker said. "This could be a sign of it being exposed to space for so long. This type of UV brightening is often attributed to space weathering."
Metallic asteroids are uncommon; So this asteroid may give an attractive opportunity to probe inside the planet. NASA intends to send the unmanned spacecraft Psyche on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket in 2022 to investigate the asteroid in an effort to understand its history and associated asteroids. This will be the first time a mission will visit an entirely metallic body.
In January 2026, the orbiter will reach the asteroid to investigate it for about two years. The head of the project at Arizona State University believes that iron alone will cost about $10,000 quadrillion dollars in the current market.
"What makes Psyche and other asteroids so interesting is that they are considered the building blocks of the Solar System," Baker said. "To understand exactly what makes up a planet and potentially the inside of a planet is fascinating.