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posted by martyb on Friday June 11, @11:11AM   Printer-friendly
from the That's-no-moon dept.

Psyche 16 may not be solid metal, after all. News at Phys.org:

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. But new University of Arizona-led research suggests that the asteroid might not be as metallic or dense as once thought, and hints at a much different origin story.

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%.

These estimates differ from past analyses of 16 Psyche's composition that led researchers to estimate it could contain as much as 95% metal and be much denser.

Wikipedia entry on 16 Psyche.

Precipitated a collapse of other unknown psyche things, like cryptocurrency.

Journal Reference:
David C. Cantillo, et al. Constraining the Regolith Composition of Asteroid (16) Psyche via Laboratory Visible Near-infrared Spectroscopy - IOPscience, The Planetary Science Journal (DOI: 10.3847/PSJ/abf63b)


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  • (Score: 2) by Runaway1956 on Friday June 11, @12:11PM (9 children)

    by Runaway1956 (2926) Subscriber Badge on Friday June 11, @12:11PM (#1144224) Homepage Journal

    Even if the asteroid were only 20% metals, it would still be the biggest and most accessible motherlode we know about.

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  • (Score: 4, Interesting) by takyon on Friday June 11, @12:31PM (8 children)

    It's not worth anything if it's cost prohibitive to mine it. If it can be mined but chunks of it can't be cheaply landed on Earth, then its value would be limited to a parallel space economy.

    Past estimates of 16 Psyche's composition were done by analyzing the sunlight reflected off its surface. The pattern of light matched that of other metallic objects. Cantillo and his collaborators instead recreated 16 Psyche's regolith—or loose rocky surface material—by mixing different materials in a lab and analyzing light patterns until they matched telescope observations of the asteroid. 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.

    No way that could go wrong. We'll have better data when the Psyche spacecraft actually approaches the asteroid, so sit tight.

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    • (Score: 3, Insightful) by Runaway1956 on Friday June 11, @12:44PM (6 children)

      by Runaway1956 (2926) Subscriber Badge on Friday June 11, @12:44PM (#1144229) Homepage Journal

      If it can be mined but chunks of it can't be cheaply landed on Earth, then its value would be limited to a parallel space economy.

      And, that is what it's all about. Putting people out there. I don't care if they never bring a single ounce of the asteroid back to earth. The resources need to be used to expand man's frontiers.

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      • (Score: 2) by Immerman on Friday June 11, @06:32PM (5 children)

        by Immerman (3985) on Friday June 11, @06:32PM (#1144334)

        Fortunately it's not an either/or proposition - if it was we'd probably never get out there in the first place. Colonizing space will be by far the most expensive colonization effort ever made, and every colonization effort in recorded history has been driven by the profit potential for the investors staying at home.

        Fortunately for the space-colonization effort, rare metals are almost certain to be available in massive quantities to dwarf what's accessible on Earth, and returning them to Earth should cost only a tiny fraction of their market value - Even a Starship payload worth of gold would be worth hundreds of times the launch cost, and rockets that never have to escape a planetary gravity well are much cheaper to operate, and heat shielding and basic atmospheric guidance systems to get from orbit to the surface can be pretty cheap as well.

        Meanwhle, those rare metals are likely mixed in with lots of base metals that will be valuable for expanding infrastructure in the Belt (aka increasing profit for the Earthside investors), so the basic industrial infrastructure necessary to become largely self-sufficient should get established fairly quickly. And with that beachhead established, independent prospectors and other immigrants should be able to establish a life for themselves and allow the frontiers to expand more organically.

        • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 11, @06:38PM

          by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 11, @06:38PM (#1144336)

          yeah the "cost prohibitive" part is really arresting the impulse...

        • (Score: 2, Informative) by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 11, @08:17PM (2 children)

          by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 11, @08:17PM (#1144373)

          returning them to Earth should cost only a tiny fraction of their market value - Even a Starship payload worth of gold would be worth hundreds of times the launch cost,

          I think "worth hundreds of times the launch cost" is a stretch. I'm not aware of any numbers on what the downmass capacity for Starship is estimated to be but it is almost certainly will be nowhere near its launch payload. The shuttle still holds the record for the most downmass capacity of any spacecraft flown to date at about 14 tonnes. SpaceX Dragon (both versions) has a downmass capacity of about 3 tonnes.

          14 tonnes of gold is worth about half a billion dollars today. This is on the the same order as the typical per-launch cost of the shuttle.
          3 tonnes of gold is worth about 100 million today. This is on the same order as the typical per-launch cost of the Dragon atop the Falcon 9. The idea that we are suddenly going to see multiple orders of magnitude of improvement any time soon is pure fantasy.

          But more importantly, if you start bringing significant quantities of gold down to earth it is unlikely to maintain its high value. Gold has very few practical applications (and the applications it does find do not normally need very much of it) so if you can't sell it there's basically no point in having it.

          Other materials would be more interesting prospects. Metals like platinum that are super rare on Earth and may have tons of possible industrial uses that are currently just impractical simply due to the rarity. Space mining could change that and may unlock entirely new industrial processes.

          • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 11, @11:44PM

            by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 11, @11:44PM (#1144413)

            If enough gold was brought to earth to make that extraction economically inaccessable then it could very well also mean that gold costs to produce new ceramic/metal/gold packaged chips could become viable again.

            For people wondering why this would matter: These chips have enough gold plating on them to operate for details or longer without corrosion taking them down (outside of maybe copper electromigration or gate leakage from thermal stresses/overvolting) and future spacecraft will likely want similarly robust chips to ensure they last for the long tours they will be making in space.

          • (Score: 2) by Immerman on Saturday June 12, @03:05PM

            by Immerman (3985) on Saturday June 12, @03:05PM (#1144578)

            I think I've heard that Starship shoulod be able to land with a sizeable fraction of its launch payload, possibly all of it. But even only 10% would be 10 tons, so still hundreds of millions of dollars worth of gold, with estimated launch costs (once optimized) in the single-digit millions... so like I said, the gold would be worth hundreds of times the launch cost. Possibly pushing thousands of times if it could land with the full payload. But like I said, the Starship is probably the dumb/expensive way to bring stuff to Earth - you don't need launch capability in a aerobraking landing system.

            As for reducing the value by oversaturating the market - sure, that'd absolutely happen eventually, but you could probably increase the supply by at least 10% before you started seeing dramatic changes, which would be about 24,000 tons. Enough to fund a whole lot of development. Not to mention gold is one of the less valuable metals that could be brought back - platinum is about the same price, and has LOTS of industrial applications. And then there's the whole spectrum of exotic metals that make those look cheap, and would have all sorts of potential uses if they were available in large quantities at lower prices.

            I suspect that will more than suffice to fund the expensive initial development, and once the industry is mature less expensive resources like lithium, cobalt, and various industrially valuable "rare earths" are likely to become profitable to send back.

        • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 11, @08:44PM

          by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 11, @08:44PM (#1144385)

          Colonizing space will be by far the most expensive colonization effort ever made

          so far.

          Have some optimism for the future, yeesh.

    • (Score: 3, Interesting) by JoeMerchant on Friday June 11, @03:17PM

      by JoeMerchant (3937) on Friday June 11, @03:17PM (#1144260)

      chunks of it can't be cheaply landed on Earth

      Landing chunks of space rock on Earth is quite cheap - that's what the Outback is for.

      analyzing the sunlight reflected off its surface. The pattern of light matched that of other metallic objects.

      Sounds to me like it's coated in metal, that should be much cheaper to mine than a metal core object that's coated in worthless dust, rock, and slush.

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