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 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.