Mission to rare metal asteroid could spark space mining boom

Scientists think it is mostly made of nickel and iron, but could also be abundant in more valuable metals such as platinum and gold.
Image: Psyche Mission
This artist's illustration depicts the solar-powered spacecraft of NASA's Psyche mission near the metal asteroid Psyche.SSL/ASU/P. Rubin/NASA/JPL-Caltech
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By Denise Chow

All that glitters ... may be gold. At least that’s what scientists think about a shiny, Massachusetts-size asteroid that may be chock-full of precious metals.

NASA recently approved a mission to visit the metallic space rock, which orbits the sun in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The mission — the first to a metal asteroid — could reveal secrets about our solar system’s earliest days while setting the stage for a future space mining industry.

“We think the metallic class of asteroids are the remains of ancient cores of planets,” said Jim Bell, a planetary scientist at Arizona State University in Tempe and deputy principal investigator of NASA’s Psyche mission.

Bell said the asteroid, known officially as (16) Psyche, could be the core of a nascent planet that lost its outer layers after colliding with another object billions of years ago. “That’s what we think this is — the exposed core of an ancient planetesimal from the early solar system,” he said, adding that studying Psyche up close could give scientists a better understanding of what lies at the center of our own planet.

“We can’t go visit the Earth’s core because the pressures and temperatures are too high,” he said. “The same goes for the core of Mars, the moon and other planets. But lucky for us, we think there is a core out there in the main asteroid belt that is exposed for us to view.”

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The solar-powered Psyche spacecraft will launch in 2022 and arrive at the asteroid on Jan. 31, 2026. It will study Psyche and map its surface for 21 months, using a trio of scientific instruments: a magnetometer to measure what may be left of the asteroid’s magnetic field; a spectrometer to map its chemical composition; and a camera to snap high-resolution images of the asteroid.

Angel Abbud-Madrid, director of the Center for Space Resources at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, said he’s eager to see what the close-up look at Psyche will reveal about metal asteroids, which are relatively rare in the solar system.

“We know very little about them,” Abbud-Madrid said. “We’ve only seen these asteroids in telescopes, so these are very unique objects.”

Observations from telescopes suggest that Psyche is mostly made of nickel and iron, but Abbud-Madrid said a visiting spacecraft could also find that the space rock is abundant in metals that are even more valuable — such as gold and platinum.

This potential bounty captured the imagination of venture capitalists eager to cash in on asteroid mining, with some estimating that Psyche could contain metals with an estimated value of $700 quintillion. It also grabbed the attention of media outlets, with some calling Psyche a "golden asteroid" and others saying the space rock could turn celestial prospectors into trillionaires.

But experts caution that even if Psyche holds lots of precious metal and it can be brought back to Earth — a feat that would require technology and infrastructure that don’t yet exist — the monetary value could be much lower.

“Psyche is a huge asteroid, and if it’s all highly concentrated metal, then yes, that’s an exorbitant amount,” Abbud-Madrid said. “But obviously if you bring back such a large amount, the market value will go down.”

Abbud-Madrid and Bell agreed that it might make more sense to use metal mined from Psyche in space rather than return it to Earth. “We could use metals or ice or rocky materials in the future to build settlements or build electronic components for use in space,” Bell said. “The way we prospect for those materials right now is through telescopes and sending spacecraft to these objects, so we’ll be doing some ground-truthing with the Psyche mission.”

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