Tuesday, January 17, 2017


Pick one:
NASA has approved a mission to explore 16 Psyche, an iron-rich asteroid whose contents are said to be worth over 100-thousand times the value of the entire world economy.

"Psyche is almost certainly an iron-nickel alloy asteroid, possibly formed after a larger body, like a dwarf planet, had its mantle stripped away from a violent collision with another asteroid. So, Psyche is probably the exposed core of a small planet," Bercovici said.

Do you want to pull your hair out when you see "gee wow" reporting like this? "Psyche is an asteroid with a diameter in excess of 125 miles, about the same size of the state of Massachusetts, and is almost entirely composed of iron and nickel. The abundance of these metals gives the asteroid's contents an estimated worth of a staggering $10 quintillion — that is a one, followed by 19 zeros. Comparatively speaking, the world economy is estimated to be worth just under $74 trillion. Psyche's contents are worth approximately 130,000 times as much as every single human industry put together." Transportation costs aside, supply and demand considerations make complete nonsense of this sort of calculation. You're supposed to get excited about big numbers, even when they don't make any sense.

If Psyche is indeed the remains of a much bigger object, that's more exciting. The problem is, I don't know if explorations would tell us much about a long-gone planetary crash. So it may just be exciting in a T-Rex skeleton sort of way. (The Field Museum's Sue exhibit has a case with some extra "belly bones" and the confession that nobody knows where they fit.)

Maybe the composition and structure can tell us about how planetary cores form--though the details of the composition will surely have been different from Earth's. Unfortunately the probe is supposed to launch in 2023 and arrive in 2030. A bit of a wait.

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