Researchers Utilize Webb and SOFIA Telescopes to Study Metallic Asteroid

Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) scientists are utilizing advanced telescopes to conduct infrared observations of the asteroid Psyche, offering valuable insights for NASA’s upcoming Psyche mission. Dr. Stephanie Jarmak is utilizing the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) to search for water signatures on Psyche’s metallic surface, while Dr. Anicia Arredondo is analyzing some of the last data collected by the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) to examine variations in Psyche’s composition across its surface.

Psyche is a substantial asteroid with a diameter of approximately 140 miles, making it one of the largest objects in the main asteroid belt situated between Mars and Jupiter. Previous observations have indicated that Psyche is a dense, predominantly metallic object believed to be the remnants of a failed planet’s core. NASA is planning to launch the Psyche spacecraft on October 5, which will embark on a 2.2 billion-mile journey to reach the asteroid in August 2029.

Dr. Tracy Becker, a group leader in SwRI’s Space Science Division, explained, “Using telescopes at different infrared wavelengths of light, the SwRI-led research will provide different but complementary information to what the Psyche spacecraft is designed to study.”

Psyche has retained an element of mystery due to conflicting previous observations. These include surface composition variability in near-infrared wavelengths and hints of hydration on its surface.

Dr. Jarmak elaborated on their work with the JWST, stating, “Our JWST observations are designed to determine if water exists on Psyche. Observations across the 3- and 6-micron wavelength ranges tell us whether hydration is present in the form of hydroxyl or actual water. And if we don’t find it, that wouldn’t be surprising, considering Psyche is thought to be a mostly metallic world.”

Psyche stands as an intriguing subject because it is believed to have a metallic core, akin to Earth. However, Earth’s core is inaccessible for direct study as it lies beneath layers of mantle and crust.

Dr. Arredondo discussed their use of SOFIA to scan Psyche in the infrared spectrum while it rotated, saying, “We used SOFIA to scan the asteroid in the infrared as it rotated to better understand if Psyche could be the remnant core of a differentiated asteroid or protoplanet. If so, multiple impacts would have stripped all the outer layers off, leaving only a metal core. But those impacts could also lead to variability. However, observations indicate that Psyche is metal—no big surprise—and we don’t see a lot of variation with rotation, at least at the mid-infrared wavelengths.”

Metallic asteroids are relatively rare within the solar system, and Psyche presents a unique opportunity to peer inside a planetary body. Nevertheless, Psyche’s peculiarities may offer surprising insights, potentially challenging established theories about the formation of solar system objects.

Dr. Arredondo emphasized the importance of the upcoming Psyche mission, saying, “All of the observations using different techniques keep showing us results that don’t make sense in context with each other. That’s why it’s so important that we have a mission going there now.”

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