NASA’s Psyche mission launches its future electric motors

NASA has turned on the electric thrusters of Psyche, a spacecraft now gently moving toward a metal-rich asteroid embedded in the main asteroid belt beyond Mars. the The agency says Psyche is now in “full flight” mode, six months after its launch on October 13, 2023, on a conventional SpaceX rocket.

En route, NASA used Psyche to test laser-based deep space communications. The spacecraft fired a communications laser beam at Earth from a distance of nearly 10 million miles, a first for NASA. It is expected to reach its namesake target, asteroid Psyche, by 2029, and will orbit it for two years, monitoring data and sending it back to NASA. Scientists suspect that Psyche is actually the first nucleus of a planet, also called a protoplanet.

Ion propulsion is relatively new and very old for NASA. The agency has been working on this technology since before American astronauts first traveled to the moon The first ion engine was test fired in 1964. It also has no moving parts; Instead, they generate thrust by excited xenon particles, pushing them out of the thruster. You can read more about it in this NASA paper (PDF) Description of ion propulsion.

There are many different types of ion propulsion, including the magnetic thrusters used by Psyche. In 2018, he became the chief engineer of the Psyche spacecraft He wrote this detailed explanation of the differences Among these and other ion thrusters, in addition to other types such as arc jets and microwave thrusters.

NASA first used ion propulsion as the main propulsion of a spacecraft on the 1998 Deep Space 1 mission, a mission conducted specifically to test “various advanced technologies for future interplanetary missions.” In 2007, Dawn I became NASA The “first exclusively science-focused mission” uses ion thrusters, and flies until it arrives We ran out of hydrazineThe fuel it uses to direct it. Without this, he could not have returned to maintain contact with NASA

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Ion propulsion is not powerful enough to launch a rocket from Earth, but it can still reach very high speeds over time. Right now, NASA says Psyche is traveling at 23 miles per second, or about 84,000 miles per hour, and will eventually reach 124,000 miles per hour. Thrust devices like Psyche are generally useful because the lack of moving parts makes them durable, and they use less fuel, so they are lighter and can be used in smaller spacecraft. Plus, they look great when turned on.

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