NASA’s deep-space mission to a $10 quintillion all-metal world | Artificial intelligence

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The unique metal asteroid Psyche may be a space miner’s fantasy – but there are better reasons to want to visit it, says leader Lindy Elkins-Tanton

An artist's impression of Psyche

An artist’s impression of Psyche

Peter Rubin/ASU

THE solid metal centre of Earth is shrouded in mystery. Or, more accurately, in thousands of kilometres of molten metal and swirling magma. It is impossible to examine up close, so everything we know about it must be inferred.

What would we give to study a naked core directly? NASA’s answer is $850 million – the cost of a mission led by planetary scientist Lindy Elkins-Tanton, the director of Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration. She is only the second woman to lead a NASA deep-space mission.

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Due to launch in 2022, the mission will venture to an extraordinary asteroid between Mars and Jupiter. Some 210 kilometres across, asteroid 16 Psyche is unique in that it seems to be composed of solid metal.

It may represent the exposed core of a tiny planet that has had its outer layers smashed away, so Elkins-Tanton believes it could tell us a lot about the core and formation of our own planet. And its likely composition represents the ultimate fantasy for wannabe asteroid miners.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton

“On Earth, the metals in this asteroid would be worth 10 dollars”

Arizona State University

Why go to Psyche?

We want to learn about how Earth formed, but we can’t get to the core to test our ideas, so we are going to a metal . It is the only place in the solar system where we can directly observe a planetary core.

Were you surprised last year, when NASA selected your project for funding as one of its Discovery-class missions?

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