In the early hours of Oct. 6, workers transported NASA’s Psyche spacecraft to the SpaceX hangar at Launch Complex 39A at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in preparation for launch. Earlier in the week, technicians completed encapsulation of the spacecraft, along with the DSOC (Deep Space Optical Communications) technology demonstration, inside a clean room at the Astrotech Space Operations facility in Titusville, Florida.
The fairings will protect the spacecraft from aerodynamic pressure and heat during launch. After the rocket’s second stage climbs to a high enough altitude, the fairings will separate from the vehicle and return to Earth. Soon, technicians will mate the spacecraft to a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket in preparation for launch, which is targeted for 10:16 a.m. EDT, Thursday, Oct. 12.
Psyche will be NASA’s first primary science mission launched to orbit by a Falcon Heavy rocket, and the second interplanetary mission SpaceX has launched on behalf of NASA. NASA’s Launch Services Program certified the rocket for use with the agency’s most complex and highest priority missions in early 2023 at the conclusion of a 2.5 year effort.
Psyche’s mission is to study an asteroid that may be like Earth’s core, composed of a mixture of rock and iron-nickel metal. The asteroid offers a unique window into these building blocks of planet formation and the opportunity to investigate a previously unexplored type of world. It will take about six years for the spacecraft to arrive at the asteroid’s orbit between Mars and Jupiter. Psyche will then spend around 26 months orbiting the asteroid at four different altitudes, the highest being approximately 440 miles and the lowest only about 40 miles above the surface, to gather information about its topography and composition as well as its magnetic and gravitational properties.
The DSOC technology demonstration, NASA’s farthest-ever test of high-bandwidth optical communications, will happen during the first two years of the roughly six-year journey to Psyche. DSOC will send and receive test data from Earth using an invisible near-infrared laser, which can transmit data at 10 to 100 times the bandwidth of conventional radio wave systems used on spacecraft today. What the team learns from DSOC could support future agency missions, including humanity’s next giant leap: when NASA sends astronauts to Mars.
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 spacecraft has completed another milestone. Solar arrays are now ready to power the spacecraft on a 2.5-billion-mile (4-billion-kilometer) journey to a metal-rich asteroid to help us learn more about planet formation. A team of engineers and technicians received, prepared, and installed the solar arrays on the spacecraft at the Astrotech Space Operations Facility near the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
NASA’s Psyche spacecraft is shown in a clean room on Dec. 8, 2022, at Astrotech Space Operations Facility near the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The spacecraft was powered on and connected to ground support equipment, enabling engineers and technicians to prepare it for launch in 2023. Teams working at Astrotech and at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California continue to communicate with the spacecraft and monitor the health of its systems.
After a one-year delay to complete critical testing, the Psyche project is targeting an October 2023 launch on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. NASA’s Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) technology demonstration, testing high-data-rate laser communications, is integrated into the Psyche spacecraft. The silver-colored cylinder shown in the photo is the sun shade for DSOC, and the gold blanketing is the aperture cover for the DSOC payload.
The spacecraft’s target is a unique, metal-rich asteroid also named Psyche, which lies in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The asteroid may be the partial core of a planetesimal, a building block of rocky planets in our solar system. Researchers will study Psyche using a suite of instruments including multispectral cameras, Gamma Ray and neutron spectrometers (GRNS) and magnetometers. The GRNS and magnetometer sensors are visible in the photo as the tips of the two black protrusions at the far end of the spacecraft. Also, visible here is the high-gain antenna, which will enable the spacecraft to communicate with Earth.
The Psyche mission is led by Arizona State University. JPL, which is managed for NASA by Caltech in Pasadena, California, is responsible for the mission’s overall management, system engineering, integration and test, and mission operations. Maxar Technologies in Palo Alto, California, is providing the high-power solar electric propulsion spacecraft chassis. DSOC is managed by JPL for the Technology Demonstration Missions program within NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate and the Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program within the agency’s Space Operations Mission Directorate. NASA’s Launch Services Program, based at the Kennedy Space Center, is managing the launch service. Psyche is part of NASA’s Discovery Program, managed by the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.