Scientists believe that Psyche could be the metallic core of an early planet that lost its mantle and crust due to collisions that might have occurred early in the formation of the solar system.
In the meantime, the new study in The Planetary Science Journal looked at Psyche through the Hubble Telescope at two specific points in its rotation, to capture both sides of the asteroid.
The study includes the first ultraviolet observations of Psyche, furthering our understanding of its surface and its possible composition.
“We looked at the way that the ultraviolet light reflected off of the asteroid surface,” Tracy Becker told CNN. She is the lead author of the study and a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute.
“The way the ultraviolet light was reflected from Psyche was very, very similar to the way iron reflects sunlight,” she explained.
The importance of studying Psyche
Studying Psyche could help us better understand those early times in the history of our solar system, when objects would have had “higher inclinations and crazier eccentricities,” and would have had more opportunities to collide with each other, Becker told CNN.
If Psyche is the metal core of a planet that never was, studying it more closely could tell us a lot about the core of our planet, which we wouldn’t be able to explore, Becker said.
The study also detected two possible signals of changes to the surface of Psyche due to solar winds, according to Becker.
“The first one was that as we went deeper into the UV, we started to see the asteroid get brighter, which is pretty rare,” Becker said.
“In the past, when we’ve seen that on certain planetary bodies, including the moon, that often tells us that it’s due to the charge particles from the sun interacting with the materials on the surface, causing this brightening. We call that space weathering,” she added.
The second signal, according to Becker, was the detection of iron oxide ultraviolet absorption bands.
“That could be implying that there is some sort of interaction with oxygen and the metal,” Becker said.
The charged particles from the sun could be causing the oxygen to interact with the materials now, or that interaction could have occurred a long time ago, according to Becker. Further study will be required to connect these findings to more information on when the asteroid first might have formed, Becker said.
Getting ready to visit Psyche
The study comes as the NASA mission to Psyche, led by Arizona State University, is plugging away.
“We’re building space hardware and getting ready for our launch in August of 2022,” Lindy Elkins-Tanton, a planetary scientist who is the principal investigator for the mission, told CNN. Elkins-Tanton is also a minor author of the new study.
The unmanned spacecraft should reach Psyche by January 2026, and it will be orbiting the asteroid for 21 months, mapping it and studying it from a distance,…