NASA Is Launching a Mission to a $10 Quintillion Metal Asteroid Today

The 16 Psyche mission will provide invaluable insight into the mysterious metal world and such how objects form.
NASA Is Launching a Spacecraft to a $10 Quintillion Metal Asteroid Today
Image: NASA

NASA is gearing up to launch a spacecraft to a weird metal asteroid called Psyche, one of the largest objects in the asteroid belt located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.  

The mission, also called Psyche, aims to unravel persistent mysteries about this unusual 170-mile-wide asteroid, which appears to be extremely rich in iron, nickel, and other metals, hinting that it may be the exposed core of a long-lost world. Psyche has also earned a playful reputation as the $10 quintillion asteroid, meaning its metal resources could be worth about ten-million-million-million dollars if they were extracted.  


The Psyche spacecraft is currently on track to launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket at 10:16 AM Eastern Daylight Time on Thursday, Oct. 12, though forecasts of winds and rain may delay the launch. If the weather cooperates, NASA’s live launch broadcast will begin at 9:30 AM at the link below.  

Assuming all goes to plan, the probe will travel across 2.2 billion miles and will arrive at Psyche in 2029. It will be the first mission to visit a metal world, as opposed to planetary bodies that are mostly made of rock or ice. 

Nobody knows exactly how Psyche formed, but scientists suspect it may be the core of a small, ancient  world that might have existed much earlier in the solar system’s history. If Psyche is the stripped-down remnant of a core, it could reveal unprecedented insights about the centers of other planets, including Earth, which cannot be accessed by other means. 

“We hope that when we get to this metal world, it will reveal a treasure trove of scientific discovery and potential answers to our deepest questions about the solar system's history and our place in it,” said Nicky Fox, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, in a press briefing held on Wednesday. 

“The origin of the asteroid itself is a mystery and we hope to uncover that when we get there in 2029 because finding out where it came from will teach us about the formation of our solar system,” Fox continued. “Right now scientists believe that the asteroid Psyche could be part of a metal-rich interior from the remnants of a small planet known as a planetesimal. But there's also a belief that it could be a totally new type of primordial Solar System Object that's never been seen before.”

The spacecraft will orbit Psyche for years, eventually flying within just 47 miles of its surface, allowing it to examine the terrain with a multispectral imager, a spectrometer, a magnetometer, and an X-band gravity science investigation. During its voyage to the asteroid, the mission will also test out a laser-based signaling system that could pave the way toward more efficient deep space communications.

While many people have speculated about mining Psyche for its resources, NASA’s new mission has nothing to do with prospecting. Moreover, the technologies needed to conduct resource extraction on a distant extraterrestrial body are currently out of reach. Still, the mere existence of this apparent bling world has helped to generate plenty of interest and speculation about the mission.

“We have a heavy metal mission,” Fox said at the briefing. “We're going to rock and roll it. Go Psyche!”