The mission, proposed in 2014, would send a NASA spacecraft to Psyche, running tests to learn more about the history and composition of the celestial body. That information will undoubtedly be interesting to space fans and useful to astronomers, but the financial implications of a mission to Psyche are what appear to be most compelling.
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.
Although this statistic tends to give people dollar signs for pupils, landing a probe on Psyche is a far cry from towing the monstrous rock back home.
"Even if we could grab a big metal piece and drag it back here … what would you do?" said lead scientist on the Psyche mission, Lindy Elkins-Tanton, to Canada's Global News. "Could you kind of sit on it and hide it and control the global resource — kind of like diamonds are controlled corporately — and protect your market?"
"What if you decided you were going to bring it back and you were just going to solve the metal resource problems of humankind for all time? This is wild speculation obviously."
Scientists believe Psyche to be a protoplanet, its entire body consisting of what one day could be the core of a new planet. The asteroid is of great interest to astronomers hoping to learn more about the formation and early life of planets.
"Humankind has visited rocky worlds and icy worlds and worlds made of gas, but we have never seen a metal world," said Elkins-Tanton. "Psyche has never been visited or had a picture taken as more than a point of light, and so its appearance remains a mystery. This mission will be true exploration and discovery."
The Earth's core is believed to also be composed primarily of iron. The study of Psyche may reveal more information about the center of our planet, which we cannot study directly due to the virtual impossibility of sending a probe thousands of miles underground.
Some astronomers believe Psyche to contain water, making it a possible candidate for a stellar fuel station, as water can be used to sustain life and synthesize rocket fuel. Perhaps space travelers may someday also be able to buy hot dogs and potato chips on Psyche.
But despite its profuse quantity of minerals, Psyche is unlikely to be a candidate for asteroid mining companies. Most likely candidates are within 1 AU of Earth (1 AU = the distance from the Sun to the Earth), but Psyche is 2.5 AU away from us, at its closest approach.
A NASA craft is set to launch in 2023, and will arrive at Psyche in 2030. Another mission, "Lucy," was simultaneously announced to tour asteroids in Jupiter's orbit with a similar objective — to uncover more information about planetary formation in the early Solar System.