The researchers examined Psyche in the ultraviolet - it's one of just a handful of asteroids to be examined this way - to see if telltale clues about how the light reflected off its surface could reveal details of the asteroid's internal composition. "This is an indication that oxidation is happening on the asteroid, which could be a result of the solar wind hitting the surface".
Because it is so dense and metallic, scientists believe that Psyche is actually a "protoplanet" - the leftover core of a planet that failed to fully form.
This composite of images taken in 2018 show 16 Psyche from various angles, as imaged by the ESO's Very Large Telescope in northern Chile.
The asteroid is the largest piece of space debris in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
But what makes the asteroid such a treasure is that it's made of iron and nickel, as The Planetary Science Journal points out.
If the Psyche were the metal nucleus of a planet like never before, studying it closely could tell us a lot about the core of our planet, which we would never have been able to find, Becker said.
The analysts behind the study speculate the asteroid might have been an early planet's core, before crashes decreased its crust and mantel during the solar system's formation.
Becker and her team used Hubble to make high-resolution UV observations of Psyche taken in 2017 with the observatory's Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS).
Figure 1. Orientation of Psyche at the time of the two HST observations. Image courtesy Becker et
"The way the ultraviolet light was reflected from Psyche was very, very similar to the way iron reflects sunlight", she explained. Becker said further studies would be needed to link these findings to more information about when asteroids could occur. "This could be indicative of it being exposed in space for so long".
"In the past, when we've seen that on certain planetary bodies, including the moon, that often tells us that it's due to the charge particles from the sun interacting with the materials on the surface, causing this brightening". "We've seen meteorites that are mostly metal, but Psyche could be unique in that it might be an asteroid that is totally made of iron and nickel".
The name of the asteroid is Asteroid 16 Psyche.
It is a pot of immeasurable wealth, orbiting the asteroid belt, about 370 million kilometers from Earth.
"It's possible that as a Psyche protoplanet was forming, it was struck by another object in our solar system and lost its mantle and crust" lead author Dr Tracy Becker said.
The question that Elkins-Tanton hopes to find answers to can help us understand "the ingredients that go into making cake akes" - that is our planet.
"Once we get to Psyche, we're really going to understand if that's the case, even if it doesn't turn out as we expect", Becker said. "Any time there's a surprise, it's always exciting".
The mission is also named Psyche, and the spacecraft will be carried by a SpaceX Falcon Heavy.