Pure Metal Asteroid Has Mysterious Water Deposits

Water has been showing up in all sorts of unexpected places in our Solar System, such as the Moon, Mercury and Jupiter’s moon Ganymede. Add one more place to the list: Asteroid 16 Psyche. This metal-rich asteroid may have traces of water molecules on its surface that shouldn’t be there, researchers say.

Psyche is thought to be the largest metallic asteroid in the Solar System, at 300 km (186 miles) across and likely consists of almost pure nickel-iron metal. Scientists had thought Psyche was made up of the leftover core of a protoplanet that was mostly destroyed by impacts billions of years ago, but they may now be rethinking that.

“The detection of a 3 micron hydration absorption band on Psyche suggests that this asteroid may not be metallic core, or it could be a metallic core that has been impacted by carbonaceous material over the past 4.5 Gyr,” the team said in their paper.

While previous observations of Psyche had shown no evidence for water on its surface, new observations with the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility found evidence for volatiles such as water or hydroxyl on the asteroid’s surface. Hydroxyl is a free radical consisting of one hydrogen atom bound to one oxygen atom.

“We did not expect a metallic asteroid like Psyche to be covered by water and/or hydroxyl,” said Vishnu Reddy, from the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, a co-author of the new paper about Psyche. “Metal-rich asteroids like Psyche are thought to have formed under dry conditions without the presence of water or hydroxyl, so we were puzzled by our observations at first.”

Asteroids usually fall into two categories: those rich in silicates, and those rich in carbon and volatiles. Metallic asteroids like Psyche are extremely rare, making it a laboratory to study how planets formed.

he asteroid Psyche is one of the larger asteroids.  Credit: Lindy T. Elkins-Tanton
he asteroid Psyche is one of the larger asteroids. Credit: Lindy T. Elkins-Tanton

For now, the source of the water on Psyche remains a mystery. But Redddy and his colleagues propose a few different explanations. One is, again, Psyche may not be as metallic as previously thought. Another option is that the water or hydroxyl could be the product of solar wind interacting with silicate minerals on Psyche’s surface, such as what is occurring on the Moon.

The most likely explanation, however is that the water seen on Psyche might have been delivered by carbonaceous asteroids that impacted Psyche in the distant past, as is thought to have occurred on early Earth.

“Our discovery of carbon and water on an asteroid that isn’t supposed to have those compounds supports the notion that these building blocks of life could have been delivered to our Earth early in the history of our solar system,” said Reddy.

If we’re lucky, we won’t have to wait too long to find out more about Psyche. A mission to Psyche is on the short list of mission proposals being considered by NASA, with a potential launch as early as 2020. Reddy and team said an orbiting spacecraft could explore this unique asteroid and determine if whether there is water or hydroxyl on the surface.

Sources: Europlanet, University of Arizona, paper: Detection of Water and/or Hydroxyl on Asteroid (16) Psyche.

The Moon’s Water Comes From the Sun

An image of water-filled debris ejected from Cabeus crater about 20 seconds after the 2009 LCROSS impact. Courtesy of Science/AAAS.

Comets? Asteroids? The Earth? The origins of water now known to exist within the Moon’s soil — thanks to recent observations by various lunar satellites and the impact of the LCROSS mission’s Centaur rocket in 2009 — has been an ongoing puzzle for scientists. Now, new research supports that the source of at least some of the Moon’s water is the Sun, with the answer blowing in the solar wind.


Spectroscopy research conducted on Apollo samples by a team from the University of Tennessee, University of Michigan and Caltech has revealed “significant amounts” of hydroxyl within microscopic glass particles found inside lunar soil, the results of micrometeorite impacts.

According to the research team, the hydroxyl “water” within the lunar glass was likely created by interactions with protons and hydrogen ions from the solar wind.

“We found that the ‘water’ component, the hydroxyl, in the lunar regolith is mostly from solar wind implantation of protons, which locally combined with oxygen to form hydroxyls that moved into the interior of glasses by impact melting,” said Youxue Zhang, Professor of Geological Sciences at the University of Michigan.

Hydroxyl is the pairing of a single oxygen atom to a single hydrogen atom (OH). Each molecule of water contains two hydroxyl groups.

Although such glass particles are widespread on the surface of the Moon — the researchers studied samples returned from Apollo 11, Apollo 16 and Apollo 17 missions — the water in hydroxyl form is not something that could be easily used by future lunar explorers. Still, the findings suggest that solar wind-derived hydroxyl may also exist on the surface of other airless worlds, like Mercury, Vesta or Eros… especially within permanently-shadowed craters and depressions.

“These planetary bodies have very different environments, but all have the potential to produce water,” said Yang Liu, University of Tennessee scientist and lead author of the team’s paper.

The discovery of hydroxyl within lunar glasses presents an “unanticipated, abundant reservoir” of water on the Moon, and possibly throughout the entire Solar System.

The study was published online Sunday in the journal Nature Geoscience.

Source: University of Michigan news release.

Inset image: a grain of lunar agglutinate glass from samples returned by Apollo astronauts (Yang Liu)