Jumbo solar arrays installed on NASA’s Psyche mission aircraft

Ahead of the October launch, NASA installed a giant solar array to capture sunlight and convert it into electrical energy to power the spacecraft's systems and instruments.
Shubhangi Dua
NASA team installing the solar arrays at Astrotech Space Operations facility
NASA team installing the solar arrays at Astrotech Space Operations facility

NASA / YouTube 

In preparation for NASA’s 2.5 billion-mile (4 billion-kilometer) journey to study a material-rich asteroid, the space agency installed enormous solar arrays on the spacecraft’s orbiter.

The high-power solar electric propulsion system was provided by Maxar Technologies based in Palo Alto, California. 

NASA stated, “The twin wings were re-stowed and will remain tucked away on the sides of the orbiter until the spacecraft leaves Earth after passing the deployment test.”

Watch the installation of the massive solar arrays below:

Deciphering nickel-iron asteroid

The mission aims to study a unique metal asteroid orbiting the Sun between Mars and Jupiter. A statement by the project says, “What makes the asteroid Psyche unique is that it appears to be the exposed nickel-iron core of an early planet, one of the building blocks of our solar system.”

The core is located within the primary asteroid belt between the two celestial planets. The spacecraft will orbit the asteroid at different altitudes over the course of 26 months and collect images and valuable data. Its goal is to arrive at the destination in July 2029.

“Scientists hope that learning about the asteroid, which may be part of a core of a planetesimal (a building block of a planet), will tell us more about planetary cores and Earth’s own formation,” NASA said. 

The Psyche mission led by Arizona State University is the fourteenth mission selected as part of NASA’s Launch Services Program based at the Kennedy Space Center.

According to the space agency, the first installation of the solar arrays transpired at Astrotech Space Operations near Kennedy. They were assigned during testing at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. 

Largest solar arrays at JPL

The space-based solar panels are as large as 800 square feet (75 square meters), comprising five panels. NASA claims they are the largest-ever solar arrays to be deployed at the JPL.

“With the arrays unfurled in flight, the spacecraft will be about the size of a singles tennis court,” stated the space organization. 

Despite the spacecraft’s potential to produce more than 20 kilowatts of power when placed near Earth, the solar technology is mainly constructed to work in the low light of deep space, NASA noted. 

“The asteroid Psyche is so far from the Sun that even these massive arrays will generate just over two kilowatts of power at that distance,” NASA added, “that’s only a little more power than a hair dryer uses but is ample energy to meet Psyche’s electrical needs.”

The energy allows the functioning of science instruments, telecommunications, equipment that controls the orbiter’s temperature, and the spacecraft’s superefficient solar electric propulsion engines. 

Electromagnetic fields expel ion

Furthermore, the agency elaborated that the system's thrusters depend on electromagnetic fields to accelerate and expel charged atoms, or ions, from the neutral gas xenon. These expelled ions generate the thrust that propels Psyche through space and emits a blue glow.

The space institution says, “This thrust is so gentle, it exerts about the same amount of pressure you’d feel holding the weight of one AA battery in your hand. But it’s enough to accelerate Psyche through deep space.”

The spacecraft encounters no atmospheric drag to slow it down. Thanks to its strong thrust, the space vehicle can reach speeds of up to 124,000 miles per hour (200,000 kph) relative to Earth as it travels through interplanetary space towards the asteroid belt. 

The team of astronauts is scheduled to begin loading xenon onto the vessel of up to – 2,392 pounds (1,085 kilograms) in mid-August ahead of the launch. 

NASA said Psyche will embark on its voyage from Launch Complex 39A by a SpaceX Falcon Heavy at the Kennedy Space Center at an estimated time – 10:38 a.m. EDT (7:38 a.m. PDT). However, additional opportunities have been scheduled through 25 October. 

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