NASA Is Sending a Spacecraft to Asteroid 16 Psyche – It Might Not Be What Scientists Expected - SciTechDaily
Jun 10, 2021 2 mins, 9 secs

This artist’s concept depicts the asteroid Psyche, the target of NASA’s Psyche mission.

New University of Arizona research finds that the target asteroid of NASA’s Psyche mission may not be as metallic or dense as previously predicted.

The widely studied metallic asteroid known as 16 Psyche was long thought to be the exposed iron core of a small planet that failed to form during the earliest days of the solar system.

Scientists are interested in 16 Psyche because if its presumed origins are true, it would provide an opportunity to study an exposed planetary core up close.

NASA is scheduled to launch its Psyche mission in 2022 and arrive at the asteroid in 2026.

UArizona undergraduate student David Cantillo is lead author of a new paper published in The Planetary Science Journal that proposes 16 Psyche is 82.5% metal, 7% low-iron pyroxene and 10.5% carbonaceous chondrite that was likely delivered by impacts from other asteroids.

Cantillo and his collaborators estimate that 16 Psyche’s bulk density — also known as porosity, which refers to how much empty space is found within its body — is around 35%.

An illustration, created in March 2021, of NASA’s Psyche spacecraft, which is targeted to launch to the main asteroid belt in August 2022 to investigate the asteroid Psyche.

“That drop in metallic content and bulk density is interesting because it shows that 16 Psyche is more modified than previously thought,” Cantillo said.

“Psyche as a rubble pile would be very unexpected, but our data continues to show low-density estimates despite its high metallic content,” Cantillo said.

“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,” Cantillo said.

“The opportunity to study an exposed core of a planetesimal is extremely rare, which is why they’re sending the spacecraft mission there,” Cantillo said, “but our work shows that 16 Psyche is a lot more interesting than expected.”.

There are only a few labs in the world practicing this technique, including the UArizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland, where Cantillo worked while in high school.

“David’s paper is an example of the cutting-edge research work done by our undergraduate students,” said study co-author Vishnu Reddy, an associate professor of planetary sciences who heads up the lab in which Cantillo works.

Campbell and Om Chabra, 12 May 2021, The Planetary Science Journal.

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