Earth and the solar system’s other rocky planets probably grew as smaller blobs of rock and metal slammed together, forming ever larger bodies. As they grew, gravity pulled heavier materials — iron and nickel — toward the middle, forming their cores. Lighter materials floated toward the top, forming the mantle and crust.
We can’t actually see the cores of these worlds. But a new NASA mission may be able to show us the next-best thing: the core of a possible protoplanet, one of the building blocks of planets.
Psyche will orbit an asteroid of the same name. The asteroid is a chunk of metal about 150 miles in diameter — the biggest metallic asteroid in the solar system. It could be the surviving core of a protoplanet. The little object’s outer layers could have been blasted away by collisions with other asteroids, leaving only its dense metallic core.
Observations by ground-based telescopes show that 90 percent of its surface is made of iron. The rest is made of various minerals. A close-up inspection of those minerals could confirm that Psyche is the leftover core of a protoplanet. On the other hand, it could show that the minerals came from impacts with other asteroids, telling us that Psyche never had a mantle or crust.
Either scenario will reveal more about how the inner planets formed and how they grew, and perhaps give us a hint of what their metallic cores look like.
We’ll talk about some other future missions of discovery tomorrow.
Script by Damond Benningfield