Exploring Iron Volcanoes on a Metal Asteroid with a Spacecraft that Speaks Using a Laser

Asteroids made of metal may be home to some of the strangest volcanoes in the Solar System, which once erupted with flows of molten iron, new research shows. Metallic asteroids may have formed from molten blobs of metal, cooling and solidifying as they floated through space. Now, a team of astronomers believes these bodies may have developed volcanoes, which erupted, depositing liquid iron on the surface of these asteroids.

In 2022, NASA is planning on launching a spacecraft to the largest metal-rich asteroid in our solar system, 16 Psyche. That vehicle, complete with a revolutionary communications system, is scheduled to reach its destination in 2026. Inspired by this mission, researchers were studying how metal-rich asteroids cooled from molten material in the cold expanse of space between the planets when they made this odd discovery.

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All Those Years Ago…

As the solar system formed, small versions of planets, called planetesimals, which occasionally collided with each other. When these collisions involved a body with a metal-rich core, the outside of the planetesimal could break free, leaving a large metal body behind. Heated from the collision, these bodies would quickly start to harden as it cooled down.

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“In some cases it would crystallize from the center out and wouldn’t have volcanism, but some would crystallize from the top down, so you’d get a solid sheet of metal on the surface with liquid metal underneath,” Francis Nimmo of the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) said.

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