16 Psyche – an asteroid discovered in 1852 by Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis. Named after the Greek goddess of soul and being the sixteenth “minor planet” discovered, this astronomical object is fairly conventional in how it orbits our Sun from the asteroid belt, yet exceptionally unique due to its large size and composition. 16 Psyche is primarily composed of nickel and iron, differentiating it from the common rock or ice surfaces of the terrestrial planets in the Solar System. Because of this, it is believed to be the exposed core of a proto-planet, a hypothesis that has incited a NASA mission to explore the object by the year 2030.
Scientists believe that the Solar System formed when a cloud of gas and dust in space was disturbed. Gravitational forces pulled the remaining clumps together, forming the planets and some of their moons, and leaving behind meteorites that still exist today. From this process, terrestrial planets today contain hot molten cores with metallic compositions.
Alternatively, the narrative for the formation of 16 Psyche would be similar, but with one major change: as a planet, the now-asteroid survived constant hit-and-run collisions, which were common during the formation of the Solar System. These events would have shaved off the crust and mantle of the planet, leaving behind nothing but a core, which would then have cooled into a solid metal over some time.
And this is why the asteroid is a desired destination of NASA. The mission, led by Arizona State University researchers, is set to take off in 2023 and reach the iron-nickel core during the year 2030. There, it will orbit the minor planet to observe its topography, gravity, magnetic field, graters, and elemental composition.
These observations will serve two purposes. As with any activity in space exploration, the information gathered during this time is important simply because it allows for the exploration of a minor planet that had never been seen, so that the scientific community can gain a stronger understanding of objects in the Solar System. However, it is also integral for advancing the understanding of planetary processes because it can shed light on planetary cores, features that we have always inferred the existence of, but have never physically seen. 16 Psyche could be the key to truly understanding the formation of terrestrial planets.
This is the objective of the NASA mission, but, when the topic of exploring 16 Psyche is discussed in the news, there is a tendency to focus on an entirely different issue: it’s value. While NASA has no intention of bringing back or mining the asteroid (NASA doesn’t even possess the capability to perform such a feat), the minor planet is a fortune among the stars. Due to its primary iron-nickel composition, in addition to the likelihood of rare metal components (gold, platinum, copper, cobalt, iridium and rhenium), 16 Psyche is believed to contain $10,000 quadrillion in value.
However, if such finances were to be introduced into our society, the world economy would, most likely, collapse. The gross world product (GWP) in 2015 was only about $73.7 trillion, so it would surely not be able to handle such a titan monetary introduction. However, this hasn’t stopped two space mining companies from gearing up for a space-based gold rush.
As for the ownership rights of asteroids, the rules are clear. According to the United Nations’ 1967 TREATY ON PRINCIPLES GOVERNING THE ACTIVITIES OF STATES IN THE EXPLORATION AND USE OF OUTER SPACE, INCLUDING THE MOON AND OTHER CELESTIAL BODIES, “Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” This means that no nation, company, or individual can claim ownership over 16 Psyche.
Regardless of any future intentions for the celestial object, 16 Psyche is the only of its kind in the Solar System, and its observation could help garner a stronger understanding of our world.
If you are interested in the standards that make this aerospace voyage possible, please refer to: