'$10,000 quadrillion' asteroid Psyche may not be as valuable as first thought

NASA's upcoming Psyche mission should provide some answers about this mysterious, iron-rich world.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
2 min read
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An artist's illustration shows what asteroid 16 Psyche might look like.


You may have heard of asteroid 16 Psyche thanks to an eye-popping monetary figure that's been attached to it: $10,000 quadrillion. It's a fantastical number based on the assumption that Psyche is made primarily of metal, a substance we tend to pay big bucks for here on Earth. We might need to rethink that hypothetical value a little.

The asteroid -- which measures 140 miles (226 kilometers) wide -- was first discovered in 1852. A new study led by researchers at the University of Arizona suggests 16 Psyche may not be as metallic and dense as previous estimates thought. 

NASA has said Psyche "appears to be the exposed nickel-iron core of an early planet, one of the building blocks of our solar system."  Previous analysis of the asteroid led to an estimate that it could be as much as 95% metal. The new paper published in The Planetary Science Journal puts the number at 82.5% metal with a much lower density than thought.

It's possible 16 Psyche is like other famous asteroids: Bennu and Ryugu. Bennu is a rubble pile that was visited by NASA's Osiris-Rex mission, which snagged a sample to bring back to Earth. Ryugu was visited by Japan's Hayabusa2 mission and recently returned samples to Earth for further study. If 16 Psyche is similar to these asteroids, that could call into question the possible origin story that it's the intact core of an early planet. 

"Psyche as a rubble pile would be very unexpected, but our data continues to show low-density estimates despite its high metallic content," lead author David Cantillo, an undegraduate at the university, said in a statement on Wednesday

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The team took an unusual hands-on approach to estimating the asteroid's composition. The group "re-created 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." The results suggest Psyche may have experienced collisions with other asteroids that then left a layer of deposits on its surface.

The good news is we can expect some solid answers to the questions surrounding Psyche. NASA is sending a mission to visit it. SpaceX signed on to launch the Psyche spacecraft with a targeted takeoff in July 2022. 

If the new study on the asteroid's makeup holds true, it doesn't make Psyche any less fascinating or less worthy of study. "The opportunity to study an exposed core of a planetesimal is extremely rare, which is why they're sending the spacecraft mission there," said Cantillo, "but our work shows that 16 Psyche is a lot more interesting than expected."

What about the dollar figure? It's an exercise in imagination, since we're not hauling Psyche back to Earth to melt it down. But according the University of Arizona, "the new findings could slightly devalue the iron-rich asteroid." 

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