NASA is ready to embark on a groundbreaking mission to explore a metal-rich asteroid after fueling and testing procedures are completed. The Psyche spacecraft is designed to visit an intriguing asteroid, 16 Psyche, which orbits the Sun in the central asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. It appears to be an exposed nickel-iron core of an early planet, and scientists believe examining it could reveal how terrestrial worlds formed, including Earth.
The Psyche team has been working around the clock to prepare the spacecraft for launch. Technicians will finish closing out the vehicle, removing cables and plugs used during testing, and installing flight-ready exterior panels and thermal wrapping before the team begins the final preparations for fueling. The team will check the status of all four thrusters and meticulously fold and test the solar arrays. It will also fill the spacecraft with xenon gas, used as fuel during the three-year journey to Psyche. It will then proceed with propellant loading and launch vehicle integration, ensuring the spacecraft is ready for takeoff.
Psyche is one of the largest and heaviest spacecraft ever built, and it will carry an advanced suite of instruments to investigate its intriguing destination. The mission will use a multispectral imager to study Psyche’s surface composition, a gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer to measure its elemental makeup, and a magnetometer to see whether it retains any residual magnetic field. It is the first time humankind has examined a space object made entirely of metal rather than a mixture of rock and ice.
In addition to its scientific goals, Psyche will test a new technology that allows NASA to communicate with the spacecraft at far greater distances than possible with radio. The mission will demonstrate the Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) system, which uses light instead of radio waves to transmit data between a spacecraft and Earth. DSOC will be used with Psyche until the probe gets near Mars, where the high-data-rate communication system will be tested again.
Psyche’s launch, slated for October 5 on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket into space, is subject to weather and other unforeseen conditions. A 21-day launch window opens on October 5, with opportunities occurring daily until the window closes.
The Psyche mission has been in development since 2011, with engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, part of Arizona State University, designing and building the body of the spacecraft, its solar electric propulsion system, three science instruments, electronics, and power subsystems. Once those components are completed, they will be delivered to the Astrotech Space Operations facility in Titusville, Florida, where technicians will integrate them with a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket and prepare the spacecraft for transport to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The launch is scheduled for 8:04 a.m. EST on October 5 from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy.