NASA is about to begin building its latest spacecraft. Called “Psyche” it will explore a 140 miles/226 kilometers-wide asteroid called “16 Psyche.” Today it’s passed a major milestone.
Why is NASA going to ‘16 Psyche?’
Located in the Solar System’s main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, metal-rich 16 Psyche is thought to be the exposed metallic iron, nickel and gold core of a protoplanet. Most asteroids are rocky or icy.
The Psyche mission is part of NASA’s Discovery Program of low-cost robotic space missions.
16 Psyche’s core is tantalisingly similar to Earth’s, which means that it could be the heart of a dead planet that lost its rocky outer layers or suffered from violent collisions. The metals that make-up this one-of-a-kind asteroid could, according to some, be worth $10,000 quadrillion.
When will NASA’s ‘Psyche’ launch?
Due to launch from Pad 39A at Cape Canaveral, Florida, in August 2022 on top of a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, fly-past Mars in 2023, and begin orbiting the asteroid in January 2026, Psyche has just passed its “critical design review” stage.
Now the mission moves to actually making the space hardware.
What happens to ‘Psyche’ now?
“It’s one of the most intense reviews a mission goes through in its entire life cycle,” said Lindy Elkins-Tanton, principal investigator for the Psyche mission. “And we passed with flying colors. The challenges are not over, and we’re not at the finish line, but we’re running strong.”
The team now has to build its three science instruments:
- a magnetometer to measure the asteroid’s magnetic field.
- a multispectral imager to capture images of its surface and data, about what its made of, and its geological features.
- spectrometers that analyze the neutrons and gamma rays coming from the surface to reveal what the asteroid is made of.
Assembly and testing of the full robotic spacecraft begins in February 2021, and everything has to be in the clean room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) by April 2021.
The main spacecraft chassis is now being built at Maxar Technologies in Palo Alto, California.
“One of the things we pride ourselves on in these deep-space missions is the reliability of the hardware,” said Henry Stone, Psyche Project Manager at JPL. “The integrated system is so sophisticated that comprehensive testing is critical. You do robustness tests, stress tests, as much testing as you can … you want to expose and correct every problem and bug now because after launch, you cannot go fix the hardware.”
The mission will also test NASA’s new laser communications technology called Deep Space Optical Communications.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.