Palladium and the Pallas Asteroid

When palladium was discovered in 1802, it was not named after its creator. Instead, William Hyde Wollaston named his discovery after another, recent discovery. Two years prior, the asteroid Pallas was discovered – which was one of the most important events in the history of astronomy.

Pallas was the second asteroid ever discovered, and is the second largest asteroid in the solar system. Pallas is so large that it’s actually a candidate to be classified as a dwarf planet, instead of an asteroid.

Although precious metal mining in space may be possible in the future, miners won’t want to visit Pallas. Even though palladium bears its namesake, Pallas is made up of very common minerals found in the earth’s upper mantle. Based on spectroscopic analysis, Pallas seems to be made mostly of olivine (aka peridot, when of gem-quality) and pyroxene (an amalgamation of minerals).

Despite its discovery more than 200 years ago, there is still a lot about Pallas that astronomers cannot confirm. It’s so far away and has such orbital eccentricity (i.e. a major deviation from a perfect circle) that conventional space craft have not gone in for a closer look. But, the Dawn probe, which is studying Ceres (the largest asteroid) and Vesta (the third-largest asteroid) might have a shot. It’s not an official part of the mission, but if enough fuel remains after studying Ceres and Vesta, Dawn will try to catch up to Pallas and collect some flyby data sometime in December 2018.

So, if palladium is named after Pallas, what is Pallas named after? In ancient Greece, it was common practice to adopt a deceased person’s name out of mourning. In Greek mythology, Athena accidentally kills Pallas – the daughter of Triton, who is the son of Poseidon. Out of sadness, Athena takes the name Pallas Athena. Since asteroids are traditionally named after goddesses, Pallas became the name of this asteroid.

If you’re interested in seeing Pallas for yourself, February 2015 is your best bet. Pallas should shine it’s very brightest at a magnitude of around 6.96, which is just barely visible to the unassisted eye – a testament to how distant it is from earth.

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