Institute for Space Science, Exploration and Technology


Psyche mission
ASU Peter Rubin Maxar

Public Talk Abstract

When our solar system was just an infant, thousands of planetesimals formed in just a few million years. For many, heat from the decay of short-lived radioactive 26Al was trapped, causing cores to differentiate from the silicate mantle. Over the next few tens of millions of years, many planetesimals crossed paths catastrophically. Colliding worlds merged into even larger planets, eventually forming a small number of planetary embryos. Models show that among the accretionary collisions early in the solar system, some destructive “hit and run” impacts strip the silicate mantle from differentiated bodies. This is the leading hypothesis for Psyche’s formation: it is a bare planetesimal core. If our observations indicate that it is not a core, Psyche may instead be highly reduced, primordial metal-rich materials that accreted closer to the Sun.

The Psyche mission has been selected as the fourteenth in the NASA Discovery program. This mission will orbit the asteroid (16) Psyche to answer the following objectives:

  • Determine whether Psyche is a core, or if it is unmelted material.
  • Determine the relative ages of regions of its surface.
  • Determine whether small metal bodies incorporate the same light elements as are expected in the Earth’s high-pressure core.
  • Determine whether Psyche was formed under conditions more oxidizing or more reducing than Earth’s core.
  • Characterize Psyche’s topography and impact crater morphology.

In this talk Dr. Elkins-Tanton will introduce what is known and what is hypothesized about Psyche, and discuss how the mission is progressing.



Lindy Elkins-Tanton


Lindy Elkins-Tanton is the Principal Investigator (lead) of the NASA Psyche mission, Director of the Interplanetary Initiative at ASU, and co-founder of Beagle Learning, a tech company training and measuring collaborative problem-solving and critical thinking. Her research concerns terrestrial planetary formation and evolution, and she promotes and practices inquiry and exploration learning. Her mission is to create a generation of problem-solvers.

Elkins-Tanton received her B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. from MIT. She was a researcher at Brown University, faculty at MIT, and a director at the Carnegie Institution for Science before moving to the directorships at Arizona State University.

Elkins-Tanton has led four field expeditions in Siberia. She is a two-time NAS Kavli Frontiers of Science Fellow and served on the Planetary Decadal Survey Mars panel, and the Mars 2020 Rover Science Definition Team, and now serves on the Europa Clipper Standing Review Board. In 2010 she was awarded the Explorers Club Lowell Thomas prize. Asteroid (8252) Elkins-Tanton is named for her. In 2013 she was named the Astor Fellow at Oxford University. She published the book Earth, co-authored with Jeffrey Cohen, in 2017. She is a fellow of the American Geophysical Union, and of the American Mineralogical Society, and in 2018 she was elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.