In the “Star Trek” universe, most of the real estate is on “M-Class” planets, worlds like Earth that can support human life. Today’s scientists don’t use this classification, not yet, anyway. But they do classify some asteroids as type M. And NASA is about to send a spacecraft to study the largest of them.

Psyche, named after the Greek goddess of the soul, is located in the asteroid belt, between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. It is shaped like a potato, with an average diameter of about 140 miles.

An asteroid is a member of type M if it has a high concentration of metals, especially iron and nickel. And this is true of Psyche. Originally, scientists said it could be almost entirely metallic. They even estimated the value of this metal at about 10 billion dollars. More recent observations say the proportion of metals could be around half that, with much of the asteroid consisting of empty space.

Psyche could have been part of a small planet. Its gravity was strong enough to melt the interior, so heavy elements such as iron and nickel settled into the core. Lighter elements floated upward, forming the mantle and crust. Psyche would have been part of the core. A collision could have shattered the original body, throwing Psyche into space.

Studying Psyche could tell us more about how planets with metal cores formed, especially the most famous M-class planet of all: Earth.

more tomorrow

Screenplay by Damond Benningfield

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