Scientists Map Strange Metallic Asteroid That NASA Spacecraft Will Visit

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Planetary scientists have created a detailed new map of the asteroid Psyche, offering a tantalizing glimpse of the target for a NASA mission set to launch later this year.

from NASA psyche mission, named after its destination, aims to find out if the 140-mile-wide (225-kilometer) metal-rich asteroid is the exposed core of a protoplanet, as scientists theorize. Now, scientists on a mission have a new resource to consult.

In new research, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and elsewhere have used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in northern Chile to measure the light emitted by Psyche, allowing researchers to discern the temperature and certain electrical properties of materials on the surface. Next, the scientists compared thermal emissions from Psyche to simulated emissions, revealing varying amounts of metals and silicates — a large group of minerals made up of silicon and oxygen mixed with other elements — on Psyche’s surface.

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Artist’s rendering of the metal-rich asteroid Psyche. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU)

“These maps confirm that metal-rich asteroids are interesting and enigmatic worlds,” lead author Saverio Cambioni, a planetary scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in a statement. (opens in a new tab). “This is another reason to look forward to the Psyche mission heading to the asteroid.”

By tracking the asteroid as it spins, the team also found that material at the bottom of a large depression, likely an impact crater, is changing temperature much faster than material on its edge. This discrepancy suggests that the crater floor is lined with fine-grained material that heats up quickly, like sand on Earth, while the crater rims are composed of rockier, slower-heating material.

The Psyche spacecraft carries a gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer and a color imager that will allow it to start studying the surface and composition of the asteroid up close when the mission arrives in 2026.

The study was published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets on June 15.

Psyche was scheduled to launch on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket on August 1 but is now aiming for a launch no earlier than September 20 due to software issues. The delay has ripple effects for two small accompanied satellites that need to revisit their targets for planned asteroid flybys.

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