16 Psyche, a protoplanet made entirely of metal will be the first deep space mission led by Arizona State University in coordination with NASA. This 200-km diameter planet contains a little less than 1% of the mass of the entire asteroid belt. Considering the millions of asteroids present in the belt, 16 Psyche makes up a very large chunk because it’s made of 90% iron and 10% nickel. 16 Psyche may also still have a magnetic field like earths even after all the damage it took from other asteroids, but that won’t be confirmed until the mission reaches the protoplanet.
16 Psyche was discovered in 1852 by an Italian astronomer named Annibale de Gasparis. It was soon found to be different from any other item in the asteroid belt. 16 Psyche is a nickel-iron protoplanet stated to be one of the building blocks of the suns planetary system. The psyche team hopes that upon studying the planet more information can be found involving how the core, mantel, and crust layers separate to better understand our earth. Lindy Elkis-Tanton from Arizona State University said in a quote that, “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."
The mission set to launch in the summer of 2022 and if everything goes smoothly, the spacecraft will reach 16 Psyche by 2026, 4 years earlier than previously planned. The spacecraft is currently being built in California by Space Systems Loral (SSL) and will be equipped with solar panels in a 5 panel X shaped design to fuel the mission. The SSL Spacecraft will orbit 16 Psyche for 6 months during which it will study the surface, gravity, and many other characteristics of the planet.
Although we won’t know much about the planet until it is reached in 2026, scientists at Arizona State have recently studied this planet extensively using radar albedo technology. They have made assumptions on the density, which is believed to be 7,000 kg/m3. This can approximately be compared to a bar of steel. It also has a surface area of 246,000 square miles, which is roughly the size of the state of Texas. Another interesting fact is that a day on 16 Psyche is 4 hours and 12 minutes. However, since it orbits the sun at 3 AU as oppose to 1 AU like earth, a year on Psyche lasts close to 5 years on Earth.
Once more study is done in 2026 while orbiting the planet, it will be much easier to determine if 16 Psyche is indeed a core of a planet, or if it was wrongly categorized. Regardless of what it is, however, it is an unknown item floating in our solar system that could potentially progress science and geology more than ever before. What do we have to lose?
Thank you for writing such an informative post about a very interesting mission. I am very curious whether Psyche would have a magnetic field or not, but I guess I'll just have to wait until 2026 to find out. I am also glad that I know people who are working on some of the components to study it and I can take pride as a fellow Sun Devil. However, I think if you could have reframed this topic in the form of an argumentative essay it would be more enticing. For example, you could have argued that it was worth the time or effort investment to study it.
16 Psyche sounds like a fascinating object since it seems to be so unique. What discoveries do you feel could be made studying 16 Psyche? Do you think its an alien vessel? The only disappointing part is that it will not reach its destination until 2026 because of the travel time. What use could a planet's stripped core provide?