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NASA Prepares to Visit a Golden Asteroid Worth Up to $700 Quintillion

All you have to do is go out and get it.

By Cassidy Ward

In SYFY'The Ark, humanity takes its first steps into deep space, on a one-way trip to Proxima centauri. Those sorts of adventures remain only in the realm of fiction for now. So far, humanity has been limited to low-Earth orbit and, on a handful of occasions, the vicinity and surface of the Moon. Our machines, however, are getting out there, venturing into deep space, and one of them recently set off for one of the most valuable rocks we've ever seen.

How to Watch

Watch new episodes of The Ark Wednesdays at 10/9c on SYFY. Catch up on Season 1 on Peacock.

NASA's Psyche spacecraft, named for the asteroid it intends to visit, spent about a year at the Astrotech Space Operations facility near NASA's Kennedy Space Center. There, folks from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) finished up final assembly and testing in advance of its launch on October 13, 2023. The spacecraft is headed for the asteroid 16 Psyche, roughly 279 kilometers (173 miles) across and orbiting inside the asteroid belt. Getting there will take a trip of roughly 4 billion kilometers (2.5 billion miles) and approximately six years. The asteroid isn't being captured by NASA, but when Psyche gets there, it'll have a front-row seat to a space rock worth many trillions of dollars.

For More on Asteroids:
The Asteroid Bennu Is a Time Capsule from the Early Solar System
NEAR and Eros: The Story of the First Asteroid Landed on by a Spacecraft
AstroForge Space Mining Company Prepares for Launch to Secret Asteroid Target

The Asteroid 16 Psyche Has an Estimated Value Up to $700 Quintillion

Illustration of Psyche

We've known that Psyche has existed for centuries, but only recently realized how valuable it might be, both in economic and scientific terms. Previous remote observations have suggested that Psyche might be the leftover core of a failed planet, from the construction phase of our solar system. Astronomers believe that it appears to be comprised almost entirely of exposed metals like iron, nickel, and gold. If we could get our hands on such a massive piece of space, it would be worth more than the combined global economy. While the exact economic value of Psyche remains a mystery, it's estimated value spans somewhere between $10 quintillion and $700 quintillion.

Psyche's real value, however, is an opportunity to get a peek at what our own planet's core might be like. On Earth, we have to infer the shape, structure, and qualities of the planet's core using seismic readings. It's like trying to reconstruct an elephant buried beneath rubble, using only X-rays. Psyche offers an opportunity for scientists to get an unobstructed view of a planet's core, and a greater understanding of how planets are made.

The spacecraft was mounted to a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, which pushed it into orbit before heading to its destination in the asteroid belt. In addition to scoping out one of our system's treasure hoards, the mission will also serve as a testbed for technologies which could be used for crewed missions in the future. The launch itself was the first interplanetary mission for the Falcon Heavy, laying the groundwork for future Mars missions. It is also carrying an optical deep space communications system, part of NASA's ongoing work to build an updated space communications network.

NASA's Psyche Spacecraft

Psyche delivered the first mission images back in December 2023, shortly after blasting into space. It wasn't anywhere near its asteroid target at the time, but the mission team on the ground wanted to kick the tires and make sure its instruments were working while it was still close to home.

“These initial images are only a curtain-opener. For the team that designed and operates this sophisticated instrument, first light is a thrill. We start checking out the cameras with star images like these, then in 2026 we’ll take test images of Mars during the spacecraft’s flyby. And finally, in 2029 we’ll get our most exciting images yet – of our target asteroid Psyche. We look forward to sharing all of these visuals with the public," said Jim Bell, the Psyche imager instrument lead, in a statement.

After getting into low-Earth orbit, Psyche blasted off toward the asteroid belt using solar electric propulsion. Roughly six years after launch, in August of 2029, it will rendezvous with the asteroid Psyche and set up camp for a 26-month mission. But this is only a prospecting mission. Psyche is going to look, not to touch. If you want to capture a piece of space gold, you're going to have to do it yourself.

Catch The Ark when it returns for Season 2 on Peacock.

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Originally published Jul 20, 2023.