The composition of asteroid Psyche can tell scientists more about Earth's core because the two objects may have a similar structure. Both probably contain platinum, nickel, iron and maybe even gold - materials of commercial interest
The cell phones, computers and televisions that people in the US use every day require metals such as copper, cobalt and platinum to be built. Demand from the electronics industry for these metals is only increasing, and companies are constantly looking for new places on Earth to mine them. Scientists estimate that large amounts of these metals are thousands of kilometers below the Earth's surface, in its molten core, but too deep and too hot to mine. Instead, some companies hope to one day search for deposits that are truly out of this world - on asteroids.
Commercialization of asteroid mining is still a long way off, but in October 2023, NASA launched a science mission to explore the metal-rich asteroid Psyche. The main goal of the mission is to study the composition and structure of this asteroid, which can tell scientists more about the Earth's core because the two objects may have a similar structure. Both probably contain platinum, nickel, iron and maybe even gold - materials of commercial interest.
Experts need to know what's out there on asteroids before considering whether they're worth mining. NASA's Psyche mission can answer some of these questions.
I am a planetary geologist studying other planets such as Mars, Venus and the Moon as well as smaller planetary objects. I will be following the Psyche mission closely, as it is the first time that scientists will be able to study the composition and structure of a possible part of a planetary core similar to that of Earth, without indirect seismic or magnetic measurements, or to replicate the pressure and temperature conditions of the Earth's core in our laboratories.
Asteroids come in a variety of sizes. Some are the size of a city, while others are the size of a country. Most asteroids are made of rocks and represent the remnants from the early formation of our solar system about 4.6 billion years ago.
Not all asteroids are the same. Some, like Bennu, the target of NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission, are rich in carbon. These asteroids are very old, and they will teach scientists more about how planets formed and how life may have started on Earth.
Others, like Psyche, are made of metals and may result from one or more collisions between astronomical objects during the formation of the Solar System. These collisions left debris flying in space – including potentially pieces of a planet's metal-rich core. A NASA spacecraft will attack and analyze the surface of Psyche.
Not every mineral deposit on Earth can be mined. Companies first look for deposits with a high level of metal purity. They also research how profitable and feasible it will be to extract the metal before they choose where to mine.
Similarly, before mining an asteroid, companies will need to think about all of these factors, and they will need to come up with the infrastructure needed to remotely mine and transport the metals they mine hundreds of millions of miles back to Earth. The technology to do this is still years away, and transporting metals will require major funding.
Several companies around the world have already begun to think about what would be the best and lowest cost approach, using processes similar to those used on Earth.
The first step would be to find a metal deposit that can be mined. Then, they would drill and extract the metals on the asteroid. One of the most important differences with deep-Earth mining is that each step will be done remotely with spacecraft orbiting the asteroid and robots landing on its surface. A spacecraft will then send the resulting materials back to Earth.
Asteroid mining programs are still in their early stages. Some companies such as Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, with goals of extracting metals from space, have been acquired by other companies.
Experts don't really know yet how mining precious metals from asteroids will affect the global economy, but these metals could flood the market and lower their value.
The Psyche mission is a huge step in figuring out what metals are circulating in the outer solar system, and it may also answer questions about the composition and properties of Earth's core.
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