RIT professor compares ‘quadrillion dollar asteroid’ to mining ocean for gold

Science

Photo from CBS News

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Undeniably, the phrase “worth a quadrillion dollars” is bound to catch someone’s attention. This time, that inconceivable sum is attached to an asteroid called “Psyche.”

The massive asteroid — located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter — is estimated to be compromised of a massive amount of iron, nickel, and other rare metals like platinum and osmium.

While the prospects are tantalizing, Professor at RIT of School of Physics and Astronomy Michael Richmond (he also serves as director of the school’s observatory), does his best to bring these out of this world ideas back to Earth.

For News 8, he breaks down a handful of ideas on Psyche, from its origins, to how scientists can estimate what an asteroid millions of miles away is made of, and yes, the comparison between a metal-rich asteroid, and mining the ocean for gold… Which is impossible.

Discovery and naming

According to Richmond, this asteroid was discovered a remarkably long time ago, in 1852 by the Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis.

“This way pretty early in the time was astronomers were discovery asteroids,” Richmond said.

The practice of naming planets and objects in the solar system after Roman mythological figures was common — hence Mars, Venus, Pluto — but the reason is unknown why he named this asteroid after the wife of Cupid, Psyche.

How we can estimate what it’s made of

“Our solar system is filled with little bits of rock and dust,” Richmond said. “And every now and then, some of those bits of rock fall to the Earth’s surface… We call those meteors.”

Richmond says when these hit the surface of the earth, they are then called meteorites. Since the universe is very old — as is the Earth to our scale — there are countless numbers of these.

Earth scientists have also thankfully been able to collect and study hundreds of thousands of these meteorites. Upon analyzing their contents, scientists have generally placed these meteorites into three main categories:

  • Those comprised of rocky/stony material
  • Those with carbon-rich inclusions that are incredibly old, which are leftover from the formation of the solar system
  • And the metal-rich meteorites

With that data in hand, they can compare and contrast it the data they receive from examining it from space.

“When we look at asteroid that are orbiting the sun… We can measure the light that bounces off of them (from the sunlight),” Richmond says.

By analyzing the waveforms from the light, they can get a “general trend” on its contents. That’s how they determined that Psyche had characteristics similar to the metal-rich asteroids that have landed on earth.

Using these light readings, they can also determine its length at about 150-170 miles one way, and 120 miles another way, and it’s general potato shape.

The NASA mission/ determining its origins

NASA provided this brief overview of the mission:

The Psyche mission is a journey to a unique metal asteroid orbiting the Sun between Mars and Jupiter. What makes the asteroid Psyche unique is that it appears to be the exposed nickel-iron core of an early planet, one of the building blocks of our solar system.

Richmond says that a leading hypothesis for how this asteroid came to be in that it collided with a larger object.

As the NASA mission brief eluded to, iron and nickel are often the primary elements present in a planetary core. This is because, according to Richmond, massive objects in the universe start to heat up, and when they do, the heavier metals like iron and nickel sink to the middle, while the rockier and lighter compounds tend to rise up.

Richmond says this process is called “differentiation,” and the reason why the collision hypothesis is a leading idea is because Psyche is not large enough to undergo the process.

Another hypothesis is that there was an early gaseous nebula in the early years of the universe that was filled with these metals, and this asteroid simply formed from that.

NASA’s mission is to determine the answer to the this question.

The mission will launch in August of 2022, and the flight will take about four years, until it reaches orbit and starts collecting data in the form of light measurements and photos. Richmond says it will never touch down or gather samples.

Comparing mining the asteroid to mining the ocean for gold

Having access to the kind of metals that Psyche offers could prove to be incredibly valuable… But Richmond says its as outlandish a proposal as mining the ocean for gold.

“The moment, it’s not impossible,” Richmond said of mining the asteroid. “We lack the infrastructure to mine it, melt it down, refine it… and send it back.”

Richmond compares the mining of the asteroid to the more Earthly task. He says that, yes, there is hundreds of trillions of dollars worth of gold in the ocean.

But, to extract it all, you would need to set up pumps all across the shores of everywhere on the planet, create an extraction system so refined that it could parse out the 11 atoms of gold per trillions of atoms of everything else, and then refine it and store.

Which, assuming it were possible, at this point in humanity’s scientific evolution is impossible.

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