Metallic asteroid? Does it sound like an object from a science-fiction blockbuster? But a new study is to be believed, it could very much be a reality. Purdue University researchers have studied the metallic asteroid Psyche, and suggested that the space rock may have erupted with iron during its formation.
Psyche appears to be composed largely of iron and nickel instead of rocky rubble. Metal-rich asteroids are thought to have formed when primordial planetesimals collided, stripping away much of the outer material and leaving behind the inner metallic cores, which then cooled and solidified from the outside-in.
During this cooling process, an alloy of residual melted pockets of iron, nickel and lighter elements like sulfur, might have flowed to the surface through fluid-filled cracks called dikes, coating a topmost, rocky layer.
"We refer to these processes collectively as 'ferrovolcanism,'" said Brandon C Johnson, an associate professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Purdue University.
During their research, the researchers determined how deep these dikes would have to be to make volcanism possible.
Dr Johnson said: “Our calculations suggest that ferrovolcanic eruptions may be possible for small, metal-rich bodies, especially for sulfur-rich melts and bodies with mantles thinner than about 35 kilometers or bodies where the mantle has been locally thinned by large impact craters.”
Thankfully, the researchers will have the opportunity to test their theory soon.
NASA has revealed plans to visit Psyche, in the hopes of learning more about the mysterious metallic asteroid.
The Psyche mission is targeted to launch in August 2022, with the spacecraft arriving in 2026.
NASA explained: “Over 21 months in orbit, the spacecraft will map and study 16 Psyche’s properties using a multispectral imager, a gamma ray and neutron spectrometer, a magnetometer, and a radio instrument (for gravity measurement).
“The mission’s goal is, among other things, to determine whether Psyche is indeed the core of a planet-size object.”