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.
The Psyche spacecraft completed its journey from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. First, it traveled to March Air Reserve Base, about 55 miles southeast of JPL, before flying cross-country aboard a C-17 aircraft to the Launch and Landing Facility (formerly the Shuttle Landing Facility) where crews offloaded the spacecraft. Over the next three months, the spacecraft will undergo additional preparations before launching aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket on Aug. 1.
The Psyche spacecraft will use solar-electric propulsion to travel approximately 1.5 billion miles (2.4 billion kilometers) to rendezvous with its namesake asteroid in 2026. This will make it the first spacecraft to use Hall-effect thrusters beyond the orbit of the Moon. This thruster technology traps electrons in a magnetic field and uses them to ionize onboard propellant, expending much less propellant than equivalent chemical rockets. Psyche also carries three scientific instruments: an imager, magnetometer, and a gamma ray and neutron spectrometer.
The unique, metal-rich Psyche asteroid may be part of the core of a planetesimal, a building block of rocky planets in our solar system. Learning more about the asteroid could tell us more about how our own planet formed and help answer fundamental questions about Earth’s own metal core and the formation of our solar system.
The launch of Psyche will include two secondary payloads, NASA’s Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) technical demonstration, which is attached to the spacecraft as a separate experiment and the Janus spacecraft. DSOC will perform the agency’s first demonstration of optical communications beyond the Earth-Moon system, and will use lasers to send data at a higher rate than typical spacecraft radio communications. Janus is two small spacecraft that will study two different binary asteroids (two asteroids that orbit each other) to understand the formation and evolution of these objects.
The Psyche mission is led by Arizona State University. JPL, which is managed for NASA by Caltech in Pasadena, California, is responsible for mission’s overall management, system engineering, integration and testing, and mission operations. Maxar Technologies in Palo Alto, California, provided the high-power solar electric propulsion spacecraft chassis. NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP), based at Kennedy, is managing the launch. Psyche will be the 14th mission in the agency’s Discovery program and LSP’s 100th primary mission. Numerous international, university, and commercial partners are part of the Psyche team.