Now that fueling and testing are complete, NASA’s Psyche spacecraft is ready to meet its ride – a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. Launch is now targeting 10:34 a.m. EDT Thursday, Oct. 5 from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida after optimizing the trajectory for the mission to study a metal-rich asteroid.
Technicians connected Psyche to the payload attach fitting at Astrotech Space Operations facility in Titusville, Florida. This hardware allows Psyche to connect to the top of the rocket once it’s secure inside the protective payload fairings.
Psyche’s journey through space will last nearly six years and about 2.2 billion miles (3.6 billion kilometers) before reaching an asteroid of the same name, which is orbiting the Sun between Mars and Jupiter. Scientists believe Psyche could be part of the core of a planetesimal, likely made of iron-nickel metal. The ore will not be mined but studied from orbit in hopes of giving researchers a better idea of what may make up Earth’s core.
Additionally, the Psyche spacecraft will host a pioneering technology demonstration: NASA’s DSOC (Deep Space Optical Communications) experiment. This laser communications system will test high-bandwidth optical communications to Earth for the first two years of Psyche’s journey.
NASA’s Psyche spacecraft took another step closer on its upcoming journey to a metal-rich asteroid of the same name. On Aug. 14, a team of technicians and engineers moved the spacecraft from Building 1 to Building 9 at Astrotech Space Operations facility near the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Inside Building 9, technicians will load about one metric ton of xenon gas into seven 22-gallon tanks inside the spacecraft.
Psyche’s solar electric propulsion will use large solar arrays to convert sunlight into electricity, which will power four Hall thrusters. The thrusters will use electric and magnetic fields to accelerate and expel charged xenon particles, or ions, to create thrust and propel the spacecraft to its destination after launch. The thrusters will operate one at a time and will have a blue glow from the xenon.
Psyche is targeted to launch Oct. 5 atop a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy. After launch, Psyche is set to arrive at the asteroid in July 2029, where it will spend 26 months gathering observations that will help scientists learn more about planetary formation.
In addition to its primary mission, Psyche has NASA’s Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) technology demonstration onboard the spacecraft. DSOC will be the agency’s first demonstration of optical communication beyond the Moon. DSOC will send test data to and from Earth using an invisible near-infrared laser, which has much higher bandwidth than radio wave systems currently used on spacecraft.
NASA’s Psyche mission team continues to assess ongoing issues with the spacecraft’s flight software. The team is evaluating its ability to meet a schedule to launch in 2022 – the current launch period is Sept. 20 to Oct. 11. If it is determined that launch in 2022 is not possible, a full range of actions for how to proceed will be considered.
NASA’s Psyche spacecraft is nearing the final stages of preparations for launch, and the mission team is working to confirm that all hardware and software systems are operating correctly. An issue is preventing confirmation that the software controlling the spacecraft is functioning as planned. The team is working to identify and correct the issue. To allow more time for this work, the launch period is being updated to no earlier than Sept. 20, 2022, pending range availability.