NASA gears up for metal-rich asteroid exploration

NASA's Psyche mission launches on October 5 to explore the metal-rich asteroid Psyche, offering insights into planet formation.
Rizwan Choudhury
Psyche mission team members prepare the spacecraft at a facility near NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Psyche mission team members prepare the spacecraft at a facility near NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Credits: NASA/Kim Shiflett 

As October 5 inches closer on the calendar, NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida is buzzing with anticipation. Engineers and scientists are busy making final preparations for the groundbreaking Psyche mission, set to launch within less than a month. With its suite of high-end science instruments — a multispectral imager, magnetometer, and gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer — primed for action, the spacecraft aims to unlock the secrets of its namesake asteroid, Psyche.

All systems go

According to a press release from NASA, engineers have performed tests on all four thrusters of the spacecraft, meticulously folded its solar arrays, and filled it with xenon gas, which is the fuel for its ambitious journey to the asteroid belt. Additionally, the mission's high-gain antenna has been validated to transmit essential data back to Earth, ensuring the spacecraft is fully mission-ready. Henry Stone, Psyche's project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, expressed that the team is fully prepared and eager to launch the spacecraft. He noted that the mission's reality is setting in more with each passing day.

The launch window for NASA's Psyche spacecraft will commence on Thursday, October 5, and conclude on Wednesday, October 25. The spacecraft will ascend to the heavens atop a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket from the Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A at 10:38 am EDT. The mission's objective is not merely to reach the metal-rich asteroid but to glean insights that could reshape our understanding of planet formation.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton, the principal investigator for Psyche at Arizona State University, conveyed her excitement and anticipation for the mission. She emphasized that while the team is prepared to celebrate, they are holding off on the jubilation until after the launch and successful establishment of communications.

The spacecraft will embark on a unique spiral path to reach the asteroid, marked by key milestones and test periods for NASA's Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) technology. Once the spacecraft frees itself from Earth's gravity, it will leverage its efficient solar electric propulsion system to navigate its six-year voyage. This propulsion system, recently fueled with 2,392 pounds of xenon, works by accelerating and expelling charged atoms to generate a thrust comparable to holding a single AA battery.

NASA gears up for metal-rich asteroid exploration
An artist’s concept of asteroid Psyche.

A unique asteroidal laboratory

Measuring about 173 miles at its widest point, asteroid Psyche serves as a unique celestial laboratory. The asteroid could potentially be a fragment of a planetesimal's core, offering an unprecedented look at the building blocks of early planets. Upon reaching Psyche, the spacecraft will spend approximately 26 months orbiting the asteroid, capturing invaluable data on its composition and history.

Arizona State University spearheads the mission, while NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is in charge of the overall management and system engineering. Maxar Technologies in Palo Alto, California, provided the high-power solar electric propulsion spacecraft chassis.

The mission also serves as a testbed for DSOC technology, aimed at enhancing high-data-rate laser communications for future NASA endeavors. Managed by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate and the Space Communications and Navigation program, DSOC is an integral part of the mission's innovative aspirations.

Revisiting scientific theories

While earlier beliefs suggested Psyche was primarily metallic, more recent data indicates a possible blend of metal and silicate. Radar observations and thermal inertia measurements imply that the asteroid may contain between 30% and 60% metal by volume, further augmenting the mission's scientific potential.

As one of NASA's 14th Discovery Program missions, Psyche promises to be a stepping stone in space exploration and an exhilarating voyage for humanity's quest to unravel the mysteries of the universe.

For now, all eyes are on the calendar, eagerly awaiting the day when Psyche takes flight, turning science fiction into scientific fact.

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