NASA might cancel mission to massive ‘gold mine asteroid’ — here’s why it shouldn’t

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NASA had planned to send a probe to the asteroid 16 Psyche in 2022. It is sometimes called “the golden asteroid” because many people believe it contains an abundance of valuable metals. Unfortunately, NASA recently announced a launch delay because of the need to review software. The probe may launch in 2023 or 2024 to arrive at 16 Psyche in 2029 or 2030, respectively. The mission may be canceled altogether since the delay would cause further cost.

Regardless of the extra cost, the mission to 16 Psyche should proceed as soon as possible for two reasons: scientific and commercial.

According to NASA, scientists believe that the asteroid may be “the partial core of a shattered planetesimal — a small world the size of a city or small country that is the first building block of a planet. If it is, asteroid Psyche can offer a close look at the interior of terrestrial planets like Earth that is normally hidden beneath layers of mantle and crust.” In other words, by studying 16 Psyche close up, scientists will be able to uncover insights about other rocky worlds, including Earth.

The second case for proceeding with the mission is commercial, presuming 16 Psyche is a treasure trove of metals and other resources that would be useful for maintaining technological civilization here on Earth. Here, however, the case is a little more complicated, thanks to recent scientific studies.

Until recently, scientists thought that 16 Psyche was a solid hunk of metal, iron, nickel, gold and platinum. A recent article in Smithsonian suggested that the market price of the asteroid’s metals is $10 quintillion, hence the name “golden asteroid.” Other estimates have gone as high as $700 quintillion.

According to Interesting Engineering, a recent paper published in the Journal of Geophysical Research has cast some doubt in the original model of 16 Psyche as a giant hunk of metal. The original model was derived from the amount of light reflected off of the asteroid. However, scientists from Purdue University and Brown University suggest, using measurements of the interaction between 16 Psyche and other nearby space objects, that the “golden asteroid” is less dense than previously believed.

The authors of the study suggest that 16 Psyche is actually a rocky object covered with a layer of metal that has welled up over billions of years from volcanic activity. Some scientists have therefore marked down the market value of the metal on 16 Psyche to about $11.65 trillion, still a considerable amount but not as eye-popping as previous estimates.

The conflicting evaluations of just what 16 Psyche is further make the case for sending a probe to orbit the asteroid and to characterize its surface and composition. Not only would scientists be able to gain insights into the formation of planets, but potential asteroid miners would be able to evaluate 16 Psyche for future resource extraction.

The probe that NASA has planned to send to 16 Psyche will contain several instruments that can uncover the asteroid’s secrets. These include a multispectral imager, a gamma ray and neutron spectrometer, a magnetometer, and an X-band gravity science investigation instrument, according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

If 16 Psyche is worth mining, when could such operations proceed? Citigroup thinks that space mining, including from the moon and asteroids, will be a $100 billion-per-year business by 2040. Launch costs will continue to decrease and experience in operating in space will continue to expand until such a business makes economic sense.

How would one mine 16 Psyche? One could imagine a SpaceX Starship being dispatched to the asteroid, going into orbit around it and then sending mining robots to its surface. The robots would mine valuable minerals and then bring them back to the orbiting Starship. The SpaceX rocket ship would be able to carry as much as 100 metric tons of ore to facilities in low-Earth orbit for processing and to use as raw materials to manufacture products. Alternatively, mining 16 Psyche and other asteroids would supply SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s dreamed-of Mars settlement.

Space mining will be a new, lucrative business for the 21st century. Sixteen Psyche could be a space equivalent of El Dorado for that enterprise.

Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why Is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? and “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.”

Tags NASA Space Space exploration Technology

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