PHOENIX.-The asteroid Psyche 16, 220 kilometers in diameter and suspected of being composed of iron and nickel, may hide clues about the composition of the Earth's core and, at the same time, about the origin of the planet.
NASA scientists suspect that the asteroid, discovered by Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis in 1852, is actually the "heart" of a rocky planet, but whose outer layers were removed after violent meteorite collisions.
Therefore, Psyche 16, that giant metal rock that orbits the Sun and covers itself in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, offers a "unique look" to the study of the origin of celestial bodies, including the planet Earth, as he said Efe Lindy Elkins-Tanton, principal investigator of the NASA Psyche mission.
We believe it is likely to be the metal core of a small primitive planet, whose rocky exterior was hit by the impacts of other asteroids. If this turns out to be so, we can investigate the core of a metal planet for the first time, "said Elkins-Tanton.
The scientist, director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University (ASU), the educational center that heads the mission, said the project will help correct the inability to directly measure the core of the Land.
In this way, the project that is also part of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory plans to send a spacecraft in 2022 that must reach the asteroid by 2026 and then orbit it for 21 months to study its composition, properties and decipher their age.
The spacecraft, which will take off from the Kennedy Space Center, in Florida, will use among other instruments a gamma ray and neutron spectometer to discover if Psyche 16 was indeed a planet, and the mission will also be the first time that scientists analyze a celestial body that is not made of rock or ice, but, in this case, of metal.
Astronomer Tyler Nordgren told Efe that he agrees with the theory that Psyche 16 is an asteroid composed mostly of metal, due to scientific evidence and various studies.
"I think this could be one of the strangest places that humans have explored so far," he said of a space mission that contemplates a flyby to Mars in 2023.
He added that the similarity of Psyche 16 with the nuclei of the rocky planets has made it an object of great importance for scientists, since by studying it you could have access to the secrets hidden by the Earth's core, which until now It has remained inaccessible.
Something especially interesting about this mission is that it will test the Deep Space Optical Communication (DSOC) communication system, and a magnetometer will be used that will measure what remains of the asteroid's magnetic field, while a "multispectral camera" will distinguish the metals and silicates in the rock.
This asteroid, which has a potato shape, is between 378 and 497 million kilometers from the Sun, has a diameter equivalent to the distance between Los Angeles and San Diego (both in California) and a density of 7,000 kilos
Elkins-Tanton acknowledged that leading this project means "a dream, a great honor and a huge responsibility," and added that the mission is currently in the final stages of design, for which some university students participate.
The scientist ruled out the possibility that the asteroid harbors precious metals such as gold and, therefore, implies some kind of economic benefit, as it has slipped in some publications since the project started in 2017.
"It is likely that Psyche is also made partly of rock, and the main surprises we expect are the amount of rock compared to metal. In addition, there is no technology available to bring an economically significant amount of an asteroid back to the Earth, "he said.
He added that Psyche is "pure and simply a scientific exploration" in which a robotic spacecraft will go to look and report.