NASA’s Psyche spacecraft is on its way to a metal-rich asteroid

NASA’s Psyche spacecraft, aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, will lift off from Kennedy Space Center’s historic Launch Complex 39A in Florida at 10:19 a.m. EDT on Friday, October 13, 2023. The Psyche mission will study a metal-rich asteroid with the same asteroid. Name: It is located in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. This is NASA’s first mission to study an asteroid that contains more minerals than rock or ice. Riding with Psyche is a groundbreaking technology demonstration — NASA’s Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) experiment — that will be the first test of laser communications beyond the Moon. Credit: SpaceX

NASAThe Psyche spacecraft is on its journey to an asteroid of the same name, a mineral-rich world that could tell us more about the formation of rocky planets. Psyche was successfully launched at 10:19 AM EDT On Friday, October 13, on board A SpaceX A Falcon Heavy rocket from Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Integrated into the spacecraft is a demonstration of NASA’s deep space optical communications technology, a test of deep space laser communications that could support future exploration missions by providing greater data transmission bandwidth than traditional radio frequency communications.

“Congratulations to the Psyche team on a successful launch, the first trip to a metal-rich asteroid,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said. “The Psyche mission could provide humanity with new information about planet formation while testing technology that could be used on future NASA missions. As the asteroid fall continues, NASA’s commitment to exploring the unknown and inspiring the world through discovery is also growing.”

Highlights of the October 13, 2023 launch of NASA’s Psyche spacecraft, which will travel 2.2 billion miles to a metal-rich asteroid in the main asteroid belt between… Mars And Jupiter. Psyche lifted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 7:19 a.m. PT (10:19 a.m. EDT). Credit: NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory-California Institute of Technology

Launch details

Less than five minutes after liftoff, once the second stage of the rocket rose to a high enough altitude, the fairings separated from the rocket and returned to Earth. About an hour after launch, the spacecraft separated from the rocket, and ground controllers waited for a signal from the spacecraft.

Soon after, the Psyche spacecraft ordered itself into planned safe mode, completing only minimal engineering activities while awaiting further orders from mission controllers on Earth. Psyche established two-way communication at 11:50 a.m. EDT with NASA’s Deep Space Network Complex in Canberra, Australia. Initial telemetry reports show that the spacecraft is in good health.

“I’m excited to see the scientific treasure Psyche will unlock as NASA’s first mission to a metallic world,” said Nicola Fox, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “By studying the asteroid Psyche, we hope to better understand our world and our place in it, especially with regard to the mysterious and inaccessible metallic core of our planet Earth.”

A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket launches the Psyche spacecraft

A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket with the Psyche spacecraft was launched from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. NASA’s Psyche spacecraft will travel to a metal-rich asteroid of the same name orbiting the Sun between Mars and Jupiter to study its composition. Image credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

Mission objectives

By August 2029, the spacecraft will begin orbiting the 173-mile-wide (279-kilometer) asteroid, the only metallic-class asteroid ever explored. Because of Psyche’s high iron-nickel content, scientists believe it may be the partial core of a young planet, a building block for an early planet. The goal is a 26-month scientific investigation.

“We’ve said ‘goodbye’ to our spacecraft, the center of many working lives for many years — thousands of people and a decade,” said Lindy Elkins-Tanton, a principal investigator at Arizona State University in Tempe. “But it’s not really the finish line; it’s the starting line of the next marathon. Our spacecraft has launched to meet our asteroid, and we will fill another gap in our knowledge – and color another kind of world in our solar system.”

Psychological quitting

NASA’s Psyche spacecraft, aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, lifts off from Kennedy Space Center’s historic Launch Complex 39A in Florida at 10:19 a.m. EDT on Friday, October 13, 2023. Image credit: NASA/Kevin O’Connell

Payment and communications

she has six yearsPsyche, a 2.2 billion mile (3.6 billion km) journey to the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, relies on solar electric propulsion. The efficient propulsion system works by expelling charged atoms or ions from neutral xenon gas to create thrust that gently propels the spacecraft. Along the way, the spacecraft will use Mars’ gravity as a slingshot to accelerate it on its journey.

“I am very proud of the Psyche team, which overcame many challenges on its way to this exciting day,” said Lori Lishin, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California. “Now the real fun begins as we race toward the asteroid Psyche to uncover the secrets of how planets form and evolve.”

Mineral-rich world

This artist’s concept depicts the asteroid Psyche, the target of NASA’s Psyche mission. Image source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State University

Task schedule

The first 100 days of the mission is the commissioning phase, called the initial checkout period, to ensure that all flight systems are intact. The key out is to make sure the electric thrusters are ready to start firing continuously over long stretches of track.

Active screening of the scientific instruments — magnetometer, gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer, and multispectral imaging — begins about six weeks from now. During this period, the imager will take its first images for calibration purposes, targeting standard stars and star clusters at a variety of exposures, using several different filters. The Psyche team will then activate an automatic feed of raw images that can be viewed publicly online for the duration of the mission.

The first opportunity to operate a demonstration of optical communications technology is expected in about three weeks, when Psyche will be about 4.7 million miles (7.5 million kilometers) from Earth. This will be the agency’s first extralunar test of high-data-rate optical or laser communications. While the transceiver is hosted by Psyche, the technology demonstration will not transmit Psyche mission data.

“A launch with Psyche is an ideal platform to demonstrate NASA’s optical communications goal of delivering high-bandwidth data into deep space,” said Dr. Prasoon Desai, acting associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) at NASA Headquarters. “It is exciting to know that in just a few weeks, Deep Space Optical Communications will begin sending data back to Earth to test this critical capability for the future of space exploration. The insights we learn will help us develop these innovative new technologies and, ultimately, achieve even bolder goals in outer space.

NASA's psychological mission

NASA’s Psyche mission to a distant metallic asteroid will carry a revolutionary deep space optical communications (DSOC) package. This artist’s concept shows the spacecraft Psyche with a set of five panels. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State University/Space Systems Loral/Peter Rubin

Additional important information

Arizona State University leads the Psyche mission. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, is responsible for overall mission management, system engineering, integration, testing and mission operations. Maxar Space of Palo Alto, California, provided the spacecraft’s high-energy solar electric propulsion structure.

JPL manages the Deep Space Optical Communications Project for the Technology Demonstration Mission Program within STMD and the Space Communications and Navigation Program within the Space Operations Mission Directorate.

NASA’s Launch Services Program, headquartered at Kennedy Space Center, is responsible for launch vehicle vision and approval and manages launch service for the Psyche mission. NASA certified the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket for use on the agency’s most complex and priority missions in early 2023, concluding a two-and-a-half-year effort.

Psyche is the 14th mission selected as part of NASA’s Exploration Program, which is managed by the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

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