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Asteroid believed to be worth $10,000 quadrillion could just be a pile of rubble, study suggests

NASA will head to asteroid 16 Psyche - long thought to be the core of a dead planet - in 2022 to determine if it really contains enough metal that it's worth $10,000 quadrillion and could make every person on the planet a billionaire.

But one new study suggests it's more likely a pile of rubble.

It could also have a bulk density, or how much empty space is inside, at 35 percent.

Those figures are well below previous estimates that said it could contain as much as 95 percent metal, making it chock full of iron, nickel and gold.

NASA will head to asteroid 16 Psyche in 2022, long thought to be the core of a dead planet that might contain so many metals it could be worth $10,000 quadrillion. One new study suggests it's more likely a pile of rubble


'That drop in metallic content and bulk density is interesting because it shows that 16 Psyche is more modified than previously thought,' the study's lead author, UArizona undergraduate student David Cantillo, said in a statement.

'Psyche as a rubble pile would be very unexpected, but our data continues to show low-density estimates despite its high metallic content,' Cantillo added.  

If it's more rubble-like and less metallic inside as Cantillo and the other researchers believe, it would be similar to other asteroids in the solar system, such as asteroid Bennu.

NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission recently started its 1.4 billion mile journey home after collecting 2.1 ounces of rock and dust from Bennu that could shed new light on how the solar system formed. 

To come up with their findings, which have been peer-reviewed, the researchers recreated the surface of 16 Psyche in a lab, mixing different ingredients until the light patterns that saw matched those of the asteroid.

'Having a lower metallic content than once thought means that the asteroid could have been exposed to collisions with asteroids containing the more common carbonaceous chondrites, which deposited a surface layer that we are observing,' Cantillo said.

Nonetheless, Psyche 16 is still an enormous deal to scientists, as NASA notes.

It was the 16th asteroid to be discovered on March 17, 185 by Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis.

Psyche 16 takes roughly five years to orbit the Sun once, but only four hours to rotate on its axis, making a Psyche 16 day six times shorter than that on Earth.

It is approximately 114 miles wide, roughly the same size as the state of Massachusetts and contains one percent of all material in the asteroid belt, according to EarthSky.org.    

Even if 16 Psyche is worth less than the $10,000 quadrillion figure that has been thrown out there (one that could destroy the world's economy), it's still valuable to researchers who hope to learn more about what they believe to be the remains of a long-ago planet.

The research suggests that 16 Psyche is 82.5 percent metal, 7 percent low-iron pyroxene and 10.5 percent carbonaceous chondrite  

It could also have a bulk density, or how much empty space is inside, at 35 percent

Those figures are well below previous estimates that said it could contain as much as 95 percent metal, making it chock full of iron, nickel and gold 

'The opportunity to study an exposed core of a planetesimal is extremely rare, which is why they're sending the spacecraft mission there,' Cantillo said, 'but our work shows that 16 Psyche is a lot more interesting than expected.'

The researchers also believe there is water on 16 Psyche's surface, so they will look to merge their data with other missions to asteroids to determine how much.   

After giving it a go-ahead in 2017, NASA will send a mission to 16 Psyche, slated to launch in August 2022.

An artists' depiction of what the 16 Psyche spacecraft will look like. It is slated to launch in August 2022

The $117 million spacecraft - which NASA began building last July - will go into space on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. 

It will arrive at the asteroid in the asteroid belt in early 2026, following a gravity assist from Mars in 2023.

The craft will spend 21 months in orbit, mapping and studying the giant space rock's properties, with the goal of the mission to determine if it is indeed the core of planet-sized object.


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). 

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.   

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