Ars tours the clean room of the asteroid-orbiting Psyche spacecraft at JPL

Zoom / Artist’s illustration of NASA’s Psyche spacecraft, due to launch in August 2022. The Psyche mission will explore a mineral-rich asteroid of the same name located in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State University

Ars Technica had the opportunity to tour NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California this week, where it was appropriate to Peek clean room The Psyche spacecraft is now almost finished. This ambitious mission, named after an eponymous asteroid you’ll explore, is scheduled to launch in August on a Falcon Heavy rocket. Scientists hope that learning more about this unusual asteroid will advance our understanding of the formation of planets and the early days of our solar system.

It was discovered by an Italian astronomer in March 1852 Anibal de Gasparis16 psychic M-type asteroid. (meaning it has a high metal content) orbits the sun in the main asteroid belt, unusually resembling a potato. The long-favored hypothesis is that Psyche is the exposed mineral core of a protoplanet (a minor planet) from the early days of our solar system, with its crust and mantle stripped by collisions (or multiple collisions) with other objects. In recent years, scientists have concluded that estimates of mass and density do not correspond to All-metal residue. Instead, it is likely to be a complex mixture of minerals and silicates.

Alternatively, the asteroid may have once been the original body of a certain class of stony and iron meteorites, those that shattered and reshaped to form a mixture of metal and silicates. or maybe something like 1 seriesa dwarf planet in the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter—with the exception of 16 Psyche may have experienced a period of iron volcanoes during cooling, leaving highly enriched minerals in those volcanic centers.

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Multiple views of 16 Psyches photographed by the Very Large Telescope.
Zoom / Multiple views of 16 Psyches photographed by the Very Large Telescope.

Scientists have long suspected that metal cores lie as deep as terrestrial planets like Earth. But these cores are buried too far under the mantle and crusts of rock for researchers to detect. As the only mineral object ever discovered, Psyche provides an ideal opportunity to shed light on how the rocky planets in our Solar System (Earth, Mercury, Venus and Mars) formed. NASA agreed self mission In 2017, with the aim of sending a spacecraft to orbit the asteroid and collect important data about its properties.

“Our understanding of what Psyche might be hasn’t changed much over the past few years,” Linda Elkins Tanton of Arizona State University, principal investigator for the Psyche task, told Ars. “It should have significant metal content, but we never knew how much. It could be part of a mineral core of a small planet from early in the solar system, or it could be something that never melted and formed a core but had minerals mixed in with it, like pebbles with a rock We won’t really know until we get there.”

Several instruments will be on board the Psyche spacecraft to collect that precious scientific data. There is a multispectral imager capable of producing high-resolution images enough for scientists to tell the difference between the metallic and silicate (mineral) components of an asteroid. The task of mapping the composition of the asteroid and identifying all the elements falls to the gamma ray and neutron spectrometer. There is also a magnetometer that measures and plots any remnants of a magnetic field. Finally, the microwave radiocommunication system will also be able to measure the asteroid’s gravitational field, and pick up clues about its internal structure.

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A scale model of the Psyche spacecraft.
Zoom / A scale model of the Psyche spacecraft.

Jennifer Owlette

The structure, built by a satellite company called Maxar Technologies, was delivered last April. It’s roughly the size of a passenger truck and has been largely built using commercial off-the-shelf technology. “Once in space, the spacecraft will use an innovative means of propulsion, known as Hall thrusters, to reach the asteroid,” senior space editor at Ars Eric Berger books last year. “This will be the first time a spacecraft has ventured into deep space using Hall thrusters, and in the absence of this technology, the Psyche mission probably won’t happen – certainly not at the cost of it under a billion dollars.” here A little more than a Berger About this innovative approach:

Chemical propulsion engines are great for getting missiles off the Earth’s surface when you need a powerful blast of energy to get out of the planet’s gravitational well. But chemical rocket engines aren’t the most fuel-efficient machines in the world, because they run wild. Once the spacecraft is in space, there are more fuel-efficient means of navigation. NASA was trying [solar electric propulsion] technology for a while. The space agency first tested electric propulsion technology on the Deep Space 1 mission, which launched in 1998, and later on the Dawn mission in 2007 that visited Vesta and Ceres in the asteroid belt.

These spacecraft used ion thrusters. Hall thrusters, by contrast, use a simpler design, with a magnetic field to restrict the flow of fuel. These thrusters were invented in the Soviet Union and later adapted for commercial purposes by Maxar and other companies. Many of the largest communications satellites in geostationary orbit today, such as those transmitting DirecTV, use Hall thrusters to hold the station.

The use of Hall’s thrust-based technology enabled mission scientists and engineers to design a smaller, more affordable spacecraft. Each of the Hall thrusters on Psyche will generate three times as much thrust as the ion thrusters on the Dawn spacecraft and can handle twice the energy. This will allow the spacecraft to reach the asteroid Psyche, located in the main belt, in January 2026, after a 3.5-year journey.

Psyche . team Dual solar arrays tested In March, he attached the arrays to the spacecraft’s hull and opened them lengthwise, before storing the panels until the August launch. The five cross-panel solar arrays are the largest ever installed at JPL, measuring 800 square feet (75 square meters). They are specifically designed to operate in low light conditions out of the sun.

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