A NASA probe approaches giant metal asteroid 16 Psyche in this concept art. NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA's Psyche mission will explore a metal-rich asteroid. Here's why

Hiding within the asteroid belt exists a world suffused with metal, where the surface may be covered in cliffs and craters of iron alloys.

Glimpsed only as a bright speck in telescope images, no one knows exactly what the metal asteroid, named Psyche, looks like. It could simply be a lump of rock and metal—but it could also be decorated with an array of otherworldly aspects, from frozen flows of sickly yellow lava to upright tendrils of solidified iron, like undulating spires thrust toward the sky.

NASA has a new mission to explore the asteroid. That mission, also named Psyche, is set to launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida as early as October 13, propelled off-world by a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. The spacecraft will then begin a Herculean journey through the solar system until, in 2029, it catches up to the enigmatic metal asteroid.

“We do not know what this is going to look like,” says Paul Byrne, associate professor of Earth, environmental, and planetary sciences and fellow of the McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. “Who knows what we’re going to see when we get there?”

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