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Why is NASA sending a spacecraft to a metal world? - Linda T. Elkins-Tanton


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In 2026, an unmanned NASA spacecraft is scheduled to arrive at 16 Psyche, a massive, metallic asteroid floating somewhere between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Why is NASA so interested in this heavy metal asteroid? Are we going to mine all that metal, or build a giant space magnet? Linda T. Elkins-Tanton explains how the real answer can be found right under our feet.

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Psyche is both the name of an asteroid orbiting the Sun between Mars and Jupiter — and the name of a NASA mission that plans to visit that asteroid, led by Arizona State University.

Only the 16th asteroid to be discovered, Psyche was found in 1852 by Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis, who named it for the goddess of the soul in ancient Greek mythology.

What is Psyche’s story? One scenario is that long ago, a protoplanet that had separated internally into a rocky mantle and iron core suffered violent impacts that stripped away its mantle, leaving only the metal core. Or is Psyche a survivor of some more unusual process not yet imagined? What can it tell us about how planets form and about what's inside of Earth, Mars, Venus, and Mercury? Watch this video about the Psyche mission to learn more.

The science goals of the Psyche Mission are to understand these building blocks of planet formation and to explore firsthand a wholly new and unexplored type of world. The mission team seeks to determine whether Psyche really is a protoplanetary core, how old it is, whether it formed in similar ways to the Earth’s core, and what its surface is like. To read an overview of the Psyche mission, check out this website.

The Psyche spacecraft, once launched, will orbit the asteroid for almost two years. Every world explored so far by humans has a surface of ice, rock, or gas. Psyche will be the first metal world ever explored! Check out this 3D print of the Psyche asteroid and artworks made by college students inspired by Psyche.

Don't forget to check out the book Earth, written by the educator and Jeffrey Jerome Cohen.

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Meet The Creators

  • Educator Linda T. Elkins-Tanton
  • Director Eoin Duffy
  • Script Editor Alex Gendler
  • Animator Eoin Duffy
  • Modeler Derek Prinzi, Jarmyn Tremellen, Bill Gregory, Alex Kurgano
  • Associate Producer Elizabeth Cox, Jessica Ruby
  • Content Producer Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Narrator Addison Anderson
  • Fact-Checker Brian Gutierrez

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