#MetalCore: Walking on 16 Psyche

Soundtrack: anything that makes you bleed out of your ears..

The horizon is small. It always feels weird when  you see it curving away unnaturally the way it does. Of course, this chunk of nowhere you’re on is a little smaller than home on Mars. Even there though tourists from Earth are full of ooh and aahs at the Red Planet’s horizon.

16 Psyche. Take a security job there they said. It’ll be fun they said. Guard the most precious hunk of metal in the solar system; an asteroid over 200 km in diameter, composed almost entirely of iron and nickel. Over a quadrillion dollars worth. This place could smash the earth’s economy to smithereens.

16 psyche 1
Roughly elliptical in shape, and with a fairly even surface, 16 Psyche is a true relic from the formation of the solar system. Image: Arizona State University

Easily.

A lot of other places in the solar system have a certain feduciary value. Asteroid mining has been big biz for a long time now.  Your grandparents were among the first belt miners, heading out from Hamer Station on Phobos.

16 Psyche is the jewel in the Crown. This chunk of metal comprises nearly one per cent of the asteroid belt. Like all gold rushes there’s naturally a lot of interest, to put it diplomatically. You’re here to take care of folks who get a little….too interested.

This place sure gets boring though. Most security is automated these days. Fleets of weaponised drones orbit the moon, keeping a watchful eye out for unwanted visitors. Space piracy isn’t much like Star Wars. Space is way to dangerous and chaotic for that. No, in this day and age anyone wanting a piece of this prize has to be organised to the fourteenth decimal place. They need to know what they’re doing, and they need lots and lots of money behind them. Like the privateers of old, the only pirates these days are on government or corporate payrolls, mainly out to disrupt things. Occasionally they head out here and make pains in the ass of themselves, but that’s about all they really do. The real wars for territory take place in boardrooms across the solar system.

You don’t care. The view is incredible. You’re walking on the core of a protoplanet!

This place was named Psyche after the greek word for soul. Walking on this bare expanse of metal it seems fitting; that this exposed core is a window into the soul of a dead world…

The gravity on these tiny bodies always messes with you. On Phobos you weigh about 70 grams. Here, you’re the same weight as a small cat. You think back to your time on the tiny Martian moon. Handrails everywhere. The moon was covered with them like chain mail. Too easy to trip over a rock and become an unofficial new moon of the red planet. Who was that guy working out of Stickney Crater?  He had a good operation going; a small fleet of drones patrolling the space around Phobos, plucking over enthusiastic hikers from Martian orbit.

You’ve forgotten his name. Who cares anyway? Here on 16 Psyche the handrails aren’t a big deal. The whole asteroid is metal, right? Iron, for the most part. Taking a walk across the metal fissures and canyons is simple. No engineering expertise needed; just magnetic boots.

Break time. You squat down in a dark crack in the surface and log off for a bit.

The commute out here is the ultimate trip to work.

This asteroid lies roughly 3 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun. An AU is roughly 93 million  kilometres: the distance at which earth lies from the sun. 16 Psyche spins slowly- so you’ve been told. With only the Milky Way up there you can’t really tell. There’s been a bit of activity today. A few unmarked ships have come a little close. One even buzzed the extraction facility over at Jay Gorge. It’s a low gee quarry basically. The drill broke down, a monster the miners out at Jay call Grindstein. Built on Earth decades ago, Grindstein saw service on Mars and the Moon, carving cities out of the regolith. Now it’s here, taking tiny nibbles out of the most valuable chunk of metal anywhere.

The broken drill is sabotage someone said. Economic rivals want this place, and they’ll stoop to all sorts of tricks to disrupt things anyway they can.

You don’t really care. You really came here because it’s not every day you get to walk on the core of a planet! 16 Psyche is a battle scarred veteran of the very earliest eons of the solar system. Once it was a newly minted protoplanet. Now a remnant, this place dodged other large forming bodies and chunks of debris, orbiting a ten million year old sun. The night sky looked very different then. The solar system was a coalescing mess of rock, ice and organic muck. Everything was colliding and jostling. 16 Psyche’s outer layers were destroyed; torn away by up to eight impacts with other large bodies.

Earth’s moon may have formed in a similar cataclysm. 16 Psyche’s original face may have been destroyed in 8 such impacts.
  1. Rough childhood. Maybe this nugget represents what Earth may have ended up looking like, had Jupiter not scooped up rogue planetesimals terrorising the inner solar system during the late Heavy Bombardment.

Where did all that outer shell go? You wonder sometimes. This place took a beating for sure. Now this frozen little nugget is all that’s left. Old NASA sent a mission here way back in the 2020s, sending back pictures of a cracked metal hulk. Not all of the outer mantle was stripped away.  About ten per cent of the surface is silicate rock, no different to anywhere on Mars, Earth, Venus or Mercury. That thin veneer was once the mantle and crust of a planet that no longer exists.

Video: Arizona State University

Science began taking a back seat to big business sometime after that NASA mission arrived, so the one and only scientific mission to 16 Psyche couldn’t turn up much. But big business was more motivated. All the big players headed out here to slap their dollars, roubles,  renminbi or rupees down on the table. There were even people sent here. There’s only so much automation can do. Tunnels were dug into the asteroid, and human beings finally journeyed to the centre of the earth, in a sense. Jules Verne would have been proud. The first tunnel into the core of this core was actually called Verne tunnel….

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little trip into the future. 16 Psyche is just one of a number of bizarre places in the solar system that are worth a tale. There are several other incredible places I plan on visiting in future posts. Tell me what you think!

 

Ben.

P.S.

Follow the nascent 16 Psyche mission, blasting off from a planet near you in 2022.

Take a look at NASA Psyche Mission (@NASAPsyche): https://twitter.com/NASAPsyche?s=09

References and further reading:

https://sese.asu.edu/research/psyche
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/16_Psyche

http://www.abc.net.au/news/science/2017-03-06/16-psyche-asteroid-like-no-other-metal-world-nasa-mission/8316054

https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-selects-two-missions-to-explore-the-early-solar-system

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