The metallic asteroid known as 16 Psyche – believed to be worth $10,000 quadrillion ($10,000,000,000,000,000,000) – was considered to be the exposed iron core of a small planet that failed to form during the most initial days of the solar system. But researchers from the University of Arizona suggest that the asteroid might not be as metallic or dense as once it was believed to be, and indicates a significantly different origin story.
There’re hundreds and thousands of asteroids are floating in space, but scientists are interested in 16 Psyche because it may provide an opportunity to study an exposed planetary core closely. NASA has scheduled to launch its Psyche mission in 2022 and probably will arrive at the asteroid in 2026.
The asteroid measures 140 miles (226 kilometers) wide and was first discovered in 1852. And according to a new paper published in The Planetary Science Journal proposed that 16 Psyche is 82.5% metal, 7% low-iron pyroxene, and 10.5% carbonaceous chondrite that was likely received from impacts of other asteroids.
It has been estimated later that 16 Psyche’s bulk density which is also known as porosity, which refers to how much empty space is found within its body, happens to be around 35%.
These estimates differ from past analyses of 16 Psyche’s composition that led researchers to estimate it could contain as much as 95% metal and be much denser, resulting in an estimated worth of $10,000 quadrillion ($10,000,000,000,000,000,000) – more than the entire economy on our planet.
“Psyche as a rubble pile would be very unexpected, but our data continues to show low-density estimates despite its high metallic content,” lead author David Cantillo, an undergraduate at the Arizona University, said in a statement.
He further added, “Having a lower metallic content than once thought means that the asteroid could have been exposed to collisions with asteroids containing the more common carbonaceous chondrites, which deposited a surface layer that we are observing.”
Asteroid 16 Psyche is about the size of Massachusetts, and scientists estimated it contains about 1% of all asteroid belt material. It was first spotted by an Italian astronomer in 1852, it was also the 16th asteroid ever discovered.
“I’ve always been interested in space,” said Cantillo, who is also president of the Arizona Astronomy Club. “I knew that astronomy studies would be heavy on computers and observation, but I like to do more hands-on kind of work, so I wanted to connect my studies to geology somehow. I’m majoring in geology and minoring in planetary science and math.”
“David’s paper is an example of the cutting-edge research work done by our undergraduate students,” said co-author Vishnu Reddy, an associate professor of planetary sciences who leads the lab in which Cantillo works. “It is also a fine example of the collaborative effort between undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and staff in my lab.”
The researchers also think that the carbon-rich material on 16 Psyche’s surface is rich in water, so they will next work to merge data from ground-based telescopes and spacecraft missions to other asteroids to speculate the amount of water present.