Asteroid (16) Psyche – Again! Or Riches Evaporate, Again

Thanks to my latest novel “Spoliation”, I have had to take an interest in asteroid mining. I discussed this in a previous post ( in which I mentioned the asteroid (16) Psyche. As I wrote, there were statements saying the asteroid had almost unlimited mineral resources. Initially, it was estimated to have a density (g/cc) of about 7, which would make it more or less solid iron. It should be noted this might well be a consequence of extreme confirmation bias. The standard theory has it that certain asteroids differentiated and had iron cores, then collided and the rock was shattered off, leaving the iron cores. Iron meteorites are allegedly the result of collisions between such cores. If so, it has been estimated there have to be about 75 iron cores floating around out there, and since Psyche had a density so close to that of iron (about 7.87) it must be essentially solid iron. As I wrote in that post, “other papers have published values as low as 1.4 g/cm cubed, and the average value is about 3.5 g/cm cubed”. The latest value is 3.78 + 0.34.

These varied numbers show how difficult it is to make these observations. Density is mass per volume. We determine the volume by considering the size and we can measure the “diameter”, but the target is a very long way away, it is small, so it is difficult to get an accurate “diameter”. The next point is it is not a true sphere, so there are extra “bits” of volume with hills, or “bits missing” with craters. Further, the volume depends on a diameter cubed, so if you make a ten percent error in the “diameter” you have a 30% error overall. The mass has to be estimated from its gravitational effects on something else. That means you have to measure the distance to the asteroid, the distance to the other asteroid, and determine the difference from expected as they pass each other. This difference may be quite tiny. Astronomers are working at the very limit of their equipment.

A quick pause for some silicate chemistry. Apart from granitic/felsic rocks, which are aluminosilicates, most silicates come in two classes of general formula: A – olivines X2SiO4 or B – pyroxenes XSiO3, where X is some mix of divalent metals, usually mainly magnesium or iron (hence their name, mafic, the iron being ferrous). However, calcium is often present. Basically, these elements are the most common metals in the output of a supernova, with magnesium being the most. For olivines, if X is only magnesium, the density for A (forsterite) is 3.27 and for B (enstatite) 3.2. If X is only iron, the density for A (fayalite) is 4.39 and for B (ferrosilite) 4.00. Now we come to further confirmation bias: to maintain the iron content of Psyche, the density is compared to enstatite chondrites, and the difference made up with iron. Another way to maintain the concept of “free iron” is the proposition that the asteroid is made of “porous metal”. How do you make that? A porous rock, like pumice, is made by a volcano spitting out magma with water dissolved in it, and as the pressure drops the water turns to steam. However, you do not get any volatile to dissolve in molten iron.

Another reason to support the iron concept was that the reflectance spectrum was “essentially featureless”. The required features come from specific vibrations, and a metal does not have any. Neither does a rough surface that scatters light. The radar albedo (how bright it is with reflected light) is 0.34, which implies a surface density of 3.5, which is argued to indicate either metal with 50% porosity, or solid silicates (rock). It also means no core is predicted. The “featureless spectrum” was claimed to have an absorption at 3 μm, indicating hydroxyl, which indicates silicate. There is also a signal corresponding to an orthopyroxene. The emissivity indicates a metal content greater than 20% at the surface, but if this were metal, there should be a polarised emission, and that is completely absent. At this point, we should look more closely at what “metal” means. In many cases, while it is used to convey what we would consider as a metal, the actual use includes chemical compounds with a  metallic element. The iron levels may be as iron sulphide, the oxide, or, as what I believe the answer is, the silicate. I think we are looking at the iron content of average rock. Fortune does not await us there.

In short, the evidence is somewhat contradictory, in part because we are using spectroscopy at the limits of its usefulness. NASA intends to send a mission to evaluate the asteroid and we should wait for that data.

But what about iron cored asteroids? We know there are metallic iron meteorites so where did they come from? In my ebook “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis”, I note that the iron meteorites, from isotope dating, are amongst the oldest objects in the solar system, so I argue they were made before the planets, and there were a large number of them, most of which ended up in planetary cores. The meteorites we see, if that is correct, never got accreted, and finally struck a major body for the first time.

Space Mining

Most readers will have heard that there are a number of proposals to go mine asteroids, or maybe Mars. The implication is that Earth will become short of resources, so we can mine things in space. However, if we mine there for the benefit here, how would we get such resources here, and in what form. If the resources are refined elsewhere, then there is the “simple” cost of getting them here. If we bring them down in a shuttle, we have to get the shuttle back up there, and the cost is huge. If on the other hand, we drop them (and gravity is cheap) we have to stop whatever we send from burning up in the atmosphere, so to control the system we have to build some sort of spacecraft out there to bring them down. Overall, this is unlikely to be profitable. On the other hand if we build structures in space, such as space stations, or on Mars for settlers, then obviously it is very much cheaper to use local resources, if we can refine them there.

So, what are the local resources? The answer is it depends on the history. All the solid elements are expelled in novae (light elements only) or supernovae (all). The very light elements lithium, beryllium and boron are rather rare because they tend to be destroyed in the star before the explosion. The elements vary in relative amounts made, and basically the heavier the element the less is made, and elements with an even number of protons are more common than elements with odd numbers. Iron, and to some extent nickel, are more common than those around them because the nuclei are particularly stable. The most common elements are magnesium, silicon and with iron about 10% less. Sulphur is about half as common, calcium and aluminium are about 6 – 8% as common as silicon, while the metals such as copper and zinc are about 100,000 times less common than aluminium. The message from all that is that unless there is some process that has sorted the various elements, an object in space is likely to have the composition of dust, which are mainly silicates, i.e. rock. There may well be metal sulphides as well, as there is a lot of sulphur there.

So what sorting could there be? The most obvious is that if the body formed close enough to the star during primary accretion, the heat in the accretion disk could be sufficient to melt the element, if it were there as an element. It appears that iron was, because we get iron meteorites and iron-cored meteorites. The accretion disk, of course, was primarily hydrogen, and at the melting point of iron, hydrogen will reduce iron oxides to iron, also making water. So we could expect asteroids to have iron cores? Well, we are sure most members of the asteroid belt do not, and the reason why not is presumably it did not get hot enough to melt iron where they formed. However, since the regolith (fine “soil”) on the Moon has iron dust in it, perhaps there was iron dust where the asteroids formed. However, the problem is what caused them to solidify. If they melted, steam would be created, and that would oxidise iron dust, so the iron then would be as an oxide, or a silicate.

The ores we have on Earth are there due to geochemical processing. For example, in the mantle, water forms a supercritical fluid that dissolves all sorts of things, including silica and gold. When this comes to the surface, it cools and deposits its solids, which is why gold is found in some quartz veins. The big iron oxide deposits we have were formed through carbon dioxide weathering iron-containing silicates (such as olivine and pyroxene) to make ferrous and magnesium solutions in the oceans. When oxygen came along, the ferrous precipitated to form goethite and haematite, which we now mine. All the ore deposits on Earth are there because of geochemical processing.

There will be limited such processing on Mars, and on the Moon. Thus on the Moon, as it cooled some materials crystallised out before others. The last to crystallise on the Moon was what we call KREEP, which stands for potassium, rare earths and phosphate, which is what it largely comprises. There is also anorthite, a calcium aluminosilicate on the Moon. As for Mars, it seems to be mainly basaltic, which means it is mainly iron magnesium silicate. The other elements will be there, of course, mixed up, but how do you get them out? Then there is the problem of chemical compatibility. Suppose you want rare earths? The rare earths are not that rare, actually, and are about as common as copper. But copper occurs in nice separate ores, at least on Earth, but rare earths have chemical properties somewhat similar to aluminium. For every rare earth atom, there are 100,000 aluminium atoms, all behaving similarly, although not exactly the same. So it is far from easy to separate them from the aluminium, then there is the problem of separating them from each other.

There is what I consider a lot of nonsense spoken about asteroids. Thus one was reported to be “mainly diamond”. On close questioning, it had an infrared signature typical of carbon. That would be typically amorphous graphitic carbon, and no, they did not know specifically it was diamond. Another proposal was to mine asteroids for iron. There may well be some with an iron core, and Vesta probably does have such a core, but most do not. I have heard some say there will be lots of platinum there. Define lots, because unless there has been some form of sorting, it will be there proportionately to its dust concentration, and while there is more than in most bits of basalt, there will still be very little. In my opinion, beware of investment opportunities to get rich quickly through space mining.