Somewhere in the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, a giant asteroid measuring 130 miles in diameter orbits the sun. The asteroid, called 16 Psyche, is unique: While most have icy or rocky bodies, this one is made of primarily iron and nickel, much like Earth's core.
All the iron on 16 Psyche could be worth around $10,000 quadrillion — or $10,000,000,000,000,000,000, or $10 quintillion. To put that in perspective, the combined gross domestic product of every country in the world totaled around $74 trillion in 2015.
Now, NASA is gearing up to send a spacecraft to 16 Psyche. Its goal is to better understand how Earth and other terrestrial planets came into existence and developed layers like cores, mantles and crusts.
Currently, scientists theorize the asteroid's body is the exposed nickel-iron core of an early planet. The agency hopes to learn how old 16 Psyche is, what its surface is like and whether it's truly the core of an early planet or just unmelted material. Data gathered from the asteroid — the spacecraft will be equipped with magnetometers, multispectral imagers and a gamma — could provide insight into planet formation.
"This is an opportunity to explore a new type of world — not one of rock or ice, but of metal," Psyche principal investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton said. "16 Psyche is the only known object of its kind in the solar system, and this is the only way humans will ever visit a core. We learn about inner space by visiting outer space."
NASA had plans to launch its 16 Psyche Discovery Mission in October 2023 with an estimated arrival at the asteroid in 2030, but the agency has since bumped up mission's timeline to summer 2022 and found a more efficient route. The probe is now expected to arrive at 16 Psyche four years earlier than initially expected.
The new trajectory shortens cruise time by eliminating the need for an Earth-gravity assist. It's farther away from the sun, which decreases the amount of heat protection required for the spacecraft.
"We challenged the mission design team to explore if an earlier launch date could provide a more efficient trajectory to the asteroid Psyche, and they came through in a big way," Jim Green, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said in a statement. "This will enable us to fulfill our science objectives sooner and at a reduced cost."