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The recent approval of a NASA mission to study the asteroid 16 Psyche brought to my attention that Psyche (about 200 km in diameter) is thought to be the exposed iron core left over from a protoplanet (theorized as being about 500 km in diameter). My question is: what is the mechanism by which a body of that size can accrete, differentiate as thoroughly as Psyche apparently did, and then completely lose its mantle? I have a basic understanding of planetary differentiation and I had the impression that the migration of iron and nickel to the core took a long time, and that by that time major impacts capable of shattering large bodies must have been rare.

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  • $\begingroup$ How long are you talking about? The protosolar nebular dissipated on a scale of 3-10 Myrs, the Earth-Moon system was formed via giant impact after 60Myrs, Earth's core formation was finished at 100Myrs, while the dynamic evolution of the solar system, including giant impacts possibly went on until ~900Myrs after solar ignition. There's plenty of time and material. $\endgroup$ – AtmosphericPrisonEscape Jan 17 '17 at 20:00
  • $\begingroup$ As I said, I had the impression that differentiation took longer. But my question was more oriented toward how a large differentiated body could be shattered and lose its mantle. $\endgroup$ – pablodf76 Jan 17 '17 at 20:29
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If this hypothesis is correct, the body from which 16 Psyche formed was a 500km planetesimal (about half the diameter of Ceres) It would have been destroyed in a collision with another body. The other body would have had to have been large enough (300km) to complete fragment the asteroid. The problem with this hypothesis is that no other pieces of this planetesimal have been found (they should still have similar orbits as Psyche).

Another hypothesis is that Psyche suffered from a series of smaller impact, that fractured and disrupted the parent body, but did not destroy it. This would give Psyche a composition similar to the stony-iron mesosiderite meteorites.

The Psyche mission is intended to answer these questions.

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