- NASA will launch the spacecraft to an asteroid called Psyche by August 2022
- This asteroid is unusual as it is believed to be the core of a long dead early planet
- There are so many metals in the rock it could make every human a billionaire
NASA has started work on a spaceship that will be sent to explore a metal-rich asteroid called Psyche that could be worth more than $10,000 quadrillion.
There are so many precious metals buried within the asteroid that it could make every single person on Earth a billionaire if it were to be returned to the planet.
NASA has finished designing and started building the probe that will fly to the metal-rich asteroid Psyche, launching on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket in August 2022.
Psyche, as well as being rich in metals, is an important subject for planetary scientists as it is thought to be the heart of an early planet that lost its outer layers.
The metallic rock is about 140 miles wide and plans for the $117 million mission have finally reached a point where the design of the spacecraft have been signed off.
Passing the design review stage means work can now begin constructing the probe, including high-gear manufacturing of the spacecraft hardware.
NASA says the asteroid could be similar to the Earth's core, rich in metallic iron and nickel - potentially giving astronomers insights into how our world first formed.
When it launches the Psyche spacecraft will head out beyond Mars to the Asteroid Belt that sits between the Red Planet and gas giant Jupiter.
It will use a magnetometer to measure the asteroid's magnetic field and a multispectral imager will capture images of the surface, NASA said.
The mission will also gather data on the composition and topography of the metal rock to better understand the core of a planet - as we can't study our own directly.
'Spectrometers will analyze the neutrons and gamma rays coming from the surface to reveal the elements that make up the asteroid itself,' the agency explained.
To get to this point the mission team had to make a number of protytpes and engineering models of the science instruments to get the best combination.
'This is planning on steroids' said Elkins-Tanton, who also is managing director and co-chair of the Interplanetary Initiative at Arizona State University in Tempe.
'It includes trying to understand down to seven or eight levels of detail exactly how everything on the spacecraft has to work together to ensure we can measure our science, gather our data and send all the data back to Earth,' he said.
Psyche 16 was originally discovered in 1852 and is believed to be the remnants of a protoplanet destroyed by 'hit-and-run collisions' when the solar system was forming.There will be no mining of the space rock, in fact NASA won't even be landing on the surface - it's purely scientific - and no samples will be returned to Earth.
If this were returned to Earth it would cause the value of precious metals to plummet, completely devaluing all holdings including those of governments.
Ultimately, it could lead to the collapse of the entire economy, she said.
It also includes a number of other rare metals, including gold, platinum and copper but the real value for this mission is the scientific research.
Deep within rocky, terrestrial planets – including Earth – scientists think there are large solid metallic cores.
'These lie unreachably far below the planets' rocky mantles and crusts,' NASA wrote on the Psyche project website.
'Because we cannot see or measure Earth’s core directly, Psyche offers a unique window into the violent history of collisions that created terrestrial planets.'
The main objectives of the mission will see it examine the rocky asteroid to see how similar - or disimilar - it is to what we think the Earth's core is like.
It will determine the relative ages of the regions of its surface, whether small metal bodies incorporate the light elements as expected in the Earth's high-pressure core and whether it was formed under conditions similar to the Earth.
Now that Psyche is full-speed ahead on building hardware, there's no time to lose if NASA is to get everything assembled and testing in time for the August 2022 launch.
Assembly and testing of the full spacecraft begins in February 2021, and every instrument has a deadline of April 2021 to be delivered to JPL's main clean room.
The main body of the spacecraft, called the Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) Chassis, is already being built at Maxar Technologies in Palo Alto, California.
'One of the things we pride ourselves on in these deep-space missions is the reliability of the hardware,' said Psyche Project Manager Henry Stone of JPL.
'The integrated system is so sophisticated that comprehensive testing is critical. You do robustness tests, stress tests, as much testing as you can – over and above.
'You want to expose and correct every problem and bug now. Because after launch, you cannot go fix the hardware.'
By examining the planet, scientists hope to get a glimpse into the solar system's nascent past, when massive collisions were commonplace.
The goal will be to determine how old the asteroid is and whether it was formed the same way Earth was.
'I get goosebumps – absolutely,' Stone said. 'When we get to that point, you've made it through a huge phase, because you know you've done enough prototyping and testing. You're going to have a spacecraft that should work.'
Psyche is set to launch in August 2022, and will fly by Mars for a gravity assist in May 2023 on its way to arrival at the asteroid in early 2026.
Assuming the market for asteroid materials is on Earth, this could cause the value of precious metals to plummet, completely devaluing all holdings including those of governments, and all companies involved in mining, distributing and trading such commodities.
THE METAL WORLD OF 16 PSYCHE
16 Psyche is located in the large asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and may have started as a planet, before it was partially destroyed during the formation of the solar system.
Now, it is a 130 mile (200km) wide chunk of metal, made up of iron, nickel and a number of other rare metals, including gold, platinum and copper.
As such, it offers a unique look into the violent collisions that created Earth and the terrestrial planets.
The mission team seeks to determine whether Psyche is the core of an early planet, how old it is, whether it formed in similar ways to Earth's core, and what its surface is like.
The spacecraft's instrument payload will include magnetometers, multispectral imagers, and a gamma ray and neutron spectrometer.
Why are asteroids worth so much?
It may be 230 million miles (370 million km) away from Earth, but this asteroid could be worth a small fortune.
16 Psyche is one of the most mysterious objects in our solar system, and scientists could soon be getting a close-up view thanks to a newly confirmed Nasa mission.
If the asteroid could be transported back to Earth, the iron alone would be worth $10,000 quadrillion (£8,072 quadrillion).
It's value would be large enough to destroy commodity prices and cause the world's economy - worth $73.7 trillion (£59.5 trillion) – to collapse.
Dr Elkins-Tanton has calculated that the iron in 16 Psyche alone, would be worth $10,000 quadrillion (£8,072 quadrillion).