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Asteroid Psyche Composition

Astronomers at MIT and elsewhere have mapped the composition of asteroid Psyche, revealing a floor of metallic, sand, and rock. Credit score: Screenshot courtesy of NASA

Asteroid Psyche’s diversified floor suggests a dynamic historical past, which may embrace metallic eruptions, asteroid impacts, and a misplaced rocky mantle.

Later this 12 months,[{” attribute=””>NASA is set to launch a probe the size of a tennis court to the asteroid belt, a region between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter where remnants of the early solar system orbit the sun. Once within the asteroid belt, the spacecraft will zero in on Psyche, a large, metal-rich asteroid that is thought to be the ancient core of an early planet. The probe, named after its asteroid target, will then spend close to two years orbiting and analyzing Psyche’s surface for clues to how early planetary bodies evolved.

Ahead of the mission, which is led by principal investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton ’87, SM ’87, PhD ’02, planetary scientists at MIT and elsewhere have now provided a sneak peek of what the Psyche spacecraft might see when it reaches its destination.

In a paper published on June 15, 2022, in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, the planetary science team presents the most detailed maps of the asteroid’s surface properties to date, based on observations taken by a large array of ground telescopes in northern Chile. The maps reveal vast metal-rich regions sweeping across the asteroid’s surface, along with a large depression that appears to have a different surface texture between the interior and its rim; this difference could reflect a crater filled with finer sand and rimmed with rockier materials.

Psyche Spacecraft at the Asteroid Psyche (Illustration)

This illustration, updated in April 2022, depicts NASA’s Psyche spacecraft. Set to launch in August 2022, the Psyche mission will explore a metal-rich asteroid of the same name that lies in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The spacecraft will arrive in early 2026 and orbit the asteroid – also shown in this illustration – for nearly two years to investigate its composition. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

Overall, Psyche’s surface was found to be surprisingly varied in its properties.

The new maps hint at the asteroid’s history. Its rocky regions could be vestiges of an ancient mantle — similar in composition to the rocky outermost layer of Earth, Mars, and the asteroid Vesta — or the imprint of past impacts by space rocks. Finally, craters that contain metallic material support the idea proposed by previous studies that the asteroid may have experienced early eruptions of metallic lava as its ancient core cooled.

“Psyche’s surface is very heterogeneous,” says lead author Saverio Cambioni, the Crosby Distinguished Postdoctoral Fellow in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS). “It’s an evolved surface, and these maps confirm that metal-rich asteroids are interesting, enigmatic worlds. It’s another reason to look forward to the Psyche mission going to the asteroid.”

Cambioni’s co-authors are Katherine de Kleer, assistant professor of planetary science and astronomy at Caltech, and Michael Shepard, professor of environmental, geographical, and geological sciences at Bloomsburg University.

Telescope Power

The surface of Psyche has been a focus of numerous previous mapping efforts. Researchers have observed the asteroid using various telescopes to measure light emitted from the asteroid at infrared wavelengths, which carry information about Psyche’s surface composition. However, these studies could not spatially resolve variations in composition over the surface.

Cambioni and his colleagues instead were able to see Psyche in finer detail, at a resolution of about 20 miles per pixel, using the combined power of the 66 radio antennas of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in northern Chile. Each antenna of ALMA measures light emitted from an object at millimeter wavelengths, within a range that is sensitive to temperature and certain electrical properties of surface materials.

“The signals of the ALMA antennas can be combined into a synthetic signal that’s equivalent to a telescope with a diameter of 16 kilometers (10 miles),” de Kleer says. “The larger the telescope, the higher the resolution.”

On June 19, 2019, ALMA focused its entire array on Psyche as it orbited and rotated within the asteroid belt. De Kleer collected data during this period and converted it into a map of thermal emissions across the asteroid’s surface, which the team reported in a 2021 study. Those same data were used by Shepard to produce the most recent high-resolution 3D shape model of Psyche, also published in 2021.


On the left, this map reveals Psyche’s floor properties, from sandy areas (purple/low) to rocky areas (yellow/excessive). The map to the best reveals the abundance of metals on Psyche, from low (purple) to excessive (yellow).

To catch a match

Within the new research, Cambioni ran simulations of Psyche to see which floor properties would possibly finest match and clarify the measured thermal emissions. In every of tons of of simulated eventualities, he mounted the asteroid’s floor with completely different mixtures of supplies, resembling areas of various abundances of metals. He modeled the asteroid’s rotation and measured how the simulated supplies on the asteroid would give off thermal emissions. Cambioni then seemed for the simulated emissions that finest matched the precise emissions measured by ALMA. That state of affairs, he reasoned, would reveal the more than likely map of the asteroid’s floor supplies.

“We run these simulations space by space so we will detect variations in floor properties,” says Cambioni.

The research produced detailed maps of Psyche’s floor properties, displaying that the asteroid’s façade is probably going lined by all kinds of supplies. The researchers confirmed that, generally, Psyche’s floor is wealthy in metals, however the abundance of metals and silicates varies throughout its floor. This can be an extra indication that, early in its formation, the asteroid might have had a silicate-rich mantle that has since disappeared.

Additionally they discovered that because the asteroid spins, the fabric on the backside of a big despair, doubtless a crater, modifications temperature a lot sooner than the fabric alongside the rim. This means that the crater ground is roofed with “ponds” of fine-grained materials, like Earth’s sand, that warmth up shortly, whereas the crater rims are composed of rockier, slower-heating supplies.

“Ponds of fine-grained supplies have been seen in small asteroids, whose gravity is low sufficient for impacts to shake the floor and trigger finer supplies to build up,” says Cambioni. “However Psyche is a big physique, so if fine-grained supplies accumulate on the backside of the despair, that is fascinating and considerably mysterious.”

“These knowledge present that Psyche’s floor is heterogeneous, with doable notable variations in composition,” says Simone Marchi, a employees scientist on the Southwest Analysis Institute and co-investigator for NASA’s Psyche mission, who was not concerned within the present research. “One of many major objectives of the Psyche mission is to check the composition of the asteroid’s floor utilizing its gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer and shade imager. Due to this fact, the doable presence of compositional heterogeneities is one thing the Psyche science workforce is keen to check additional.”

Reference: “The Heterogeneous Floor of Asteroid (16) Psyche” by Saverio Cambioni, Katherine de Kleer, and Michael Shepard, Might 19, 2022, Journal of Geophysical Analysis: Planets.
DOI: 10.1029/2021JE007091

This analysis was supported by the EAPS Crosby Distinguished Postdoctoral Fellowship and partly by the Heising-Simons Basis.


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