With NASA’s Psyche mission now less than a year from launch, anticipation is building. By next spring, the fully assembled spacecraft will ship from the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for a launch period that opens Aug. 1, 2022.
In early 2026, the Psyche spacecraft will arrive at its target, an asteroid of the same name in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Scientists believe asteroid Psyche, which is about 140 miles (226 kilometers) wide, is made largely of iron and nickel and could be the core of an early planet.
The spacecraft will spend 21 months orbiting the asteroid and gathering science data with a magnetometer, a multispectral imager, and a gamma ray and neutron spectrometer. The information the instruments gather won’t just help scientists understand this particular object; it will lend valuable insight into how Earth and other planets formed.
“It’s incredible to be at this point now, with a big spacecraft coming together and one year until launch,” said Arizona State University’s Lindy Elkins-Tanton, who as principal investigator leads the Psyche mission. “Like everyone in the world, our team has faced many challenges of the COVID pandemic, and we are putting in maximum effort to make it to the finish line. I’m so proud of this incredible group of people!”
In March, Maxar Technologies delivered to JPL the spacecraft’s Solar Electric Propulsion Chassis, with most of the engineering hardware needed for the electrical system, the propulsion systems, the thermal system, and the guidance and navigation system. Psyche will use Maxar’s superefficient electric propulsion system to travel through deep space. The spacecraft’s delivery coincided with the kickoff of the mission phase known as assembly, test, and launch operations.
The mission also will test a sophisticated new laser communications technology, recently completed by JPL, called Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC). The technology demonstration will focus on using lasers to enhance communications speeds and prepare for data-intensive transmissions, which could potentially include livestream videos for future missions.
Engineers already have completed the successful integration of the magnetometer and DSOC with the Psyche spacecraft. The Psyche spectrometer will be integrated over the next few months, along with the imager.
When the spacecraft is fully assembled, it will move into JPL’s huge thermal vacuum chamber for testing that simulates the environment of deep space. The entire spacecraft then will be attached to a large shaker table in an acoustic chamber to simulate the environment of launch.
“We have all been watching the spacecraft come together on the floor of the clean room. It’s tremendously exciting after all the years of hard work designing the system, and building and testing its myriad of components,” said JPL’s Henry Stone, the Psyche project manager. “The pressure is now on to complete assembly and test of the vehicle prior to shipment to Cape Canaveral in less than a year. It’s both exhilarating and stressful for all involved, but I have total confidence in this team’s ability to get the job done in time for our launch. Go, Psyche!”
More About the Mission
ASU leads the mission. JPL is responsible for the mission’s overall management, system engineering, integration and testing, and mission operations. Psyche is the 14th mission selected as part of NASA’s Discovery Program.