Psyche Press Kit
NASA’s Psyche mission is the first to a metal-rich asteroid, which is also named Psyche. The agency is targeting a launch period that opens Oct. 5, 2023. The mission will ride to space on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Cruising through space with a super-efficient solar electric propulsion system, the Psyche spacecraft is expected to arrive at the asteroid to begin science operations in 2029. It will orbit this unique world for at least 26 months.
Attached to Psyche is the Deep Space Optical Communications technology demonstration, a NASA experiment that will test optical, or laser, communications beyond the Moon.
6 Things to Know About the Psyche Mission
Since the asteroid Psyche was discovered in 1852, scientists have only been able to study this potato-shaped object from afar. Over the years, they have discerned that Psyche is an unusual object likely rich in metal, but many questions about its origin and composition remain. The Psyche mission will be the first to study this kind of planetary object up close. Here are six key facts about the mission:
1. NASA wants to learn more about the origins of our solar system. Investigating the asteroid Psyche is important because the asteroid could be part of a building block of an early rocky planet.
Judging from data obtained by Earth-based radar and optical telescopes, scientists hypothesize that the asteroid Psyche could be part of the metal-rich interior of a planetesimal, a building block of a rocky planet. (The rocky planets are Mercury, Venus, Mars, and our home planet, Earth.) It could be that Psyche collided with other large bodies during its early formation and lost its outer rocky shell.
Humans can’t bore a path to Earth’s metal core – or the cores of the other rocky planets – so visiting Psyche could provide a one-of-a-kind window into the history of violent collisions and accumulation of matter that created planets like our own.
2. Psyche is so unusual, it could also surprise scientists and suggest a different story of how solar system objects formed.
While rocks on Mars, Venus, and Earth are flush with iron oxides, Psyche’s surface – at least when studied from afar – doesn’t seem to feature much of these chemical compounds. This suggests that Psyche’s history differs from standard stories of planetary formation.
Scientists are excited to visit Psyche up close for the first time so they can learn more about its origin. If the asteroid is leftover core material from a planetary building block, they look forward to learning how its history resembles and diverges from that of the rocky planets. And if scientists discover that Psyche is not an exposed core of an early planetary building block, it may prove to be an even rarer kind of primordial solar system object, one that’s never been seen before. One of the most exciting aspects of this mission is the possibility of the unexpected.
3. Three science instruments and a gravity science investigation on the spacecraft will help sort out these solar system origin stories.
Psyche’s magnetometer will look for evidence of an ancient magnetic field at the asteroid Psyche. A residual magnetic field would be strong evidence the asteroid formed from the core of a planetary body.
The orbiter’s gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer will help scientists determine the chemical elements that make up the asteroid. Figuring out what Psyche is composed of will enable scientists to better understand how it formed.
The spacecraft’s multispectral imager will provide information about the mineral composition of Psyche as well as its topography.
The Psyche science team will harness the telecommunications system, used to send commands to and receive data from the spacecraft, to conduct gravity science also. By analyzing the radio waves the spacecraft communicates with, scientists can measure how the asteroid Psyche affects the spacecraft’s orbit. From that information, scientists can determine the asteroid’s rotation, mass, and gravity field, gaining additional insights into the composition and structure of the asteroid’s interior.
4. The Psyche spacecraft will use a special kind of super-efficient propulsion system for the first time beyond the Moon.
Powered by Hall-effect thrusters, Psyche’s solar electric propulsion system harnesses energy from large solar arrays to create electric and magnetic fields. These, in turn, accelerate and expel charged atoms, or ions, of a propellant called xenon (a neutral gas used in car headlights and plasma TVs) at such high speed, it creates thrust. The plasma, or ionized gas, will emit a sci-fi-like blue glow as it trails behind Psyche in space. Each of Psyche’s four thrusters, which will operate only one at a time, exert at most the same amount of force that one AA battery would exert on the palm of your hand. Over time, in the frictionless void of space, the spacecraft will slowly and continuously accelerate.
Psyche’s propulsion system builds on similar technologies used by NASA’s Dawn mission, but it will be the agency’s first mission to use Hall-effect thrusters in deep space. To date, Hall thrusters have been used only by an ESA (European Space Agency) mission to the Moon.
5. Psyche is a collaboration.
The Psyche mission is only possible by drawing together resources and know-how from NASA, universities, and industry.
The mission’s leader – Principal Investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton – is based at Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe. The partnership with ASU enables collaboration with students nationwide. This offers greater opportunities to train future instrument and mission leads in science and engineering, and to inspire additional student projects involving art, entrepreneurship, and innovation. Over a dozen other universities and research institutions are represented on the mission team.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, a leader in robotic exploration of the solar system, manages the mission for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Managed for NASA by Caltech in Pasadena, JPL is also responsible for system engineering, integration and test, and mission operations.
NASA’s Launch Services Program at Kennedy Space Center manages launch operations and procured the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket.
Maxar Technologies is a key commercial participant in the mission. Its team in Palo Alto, California, delivered the solar electric propulsion chassis – the main body of the spacecraft – and most of its engineering hardware systems.
6. The Psyche mission wants you to be part of the journey, too.
NASA and the Psyche mission team believe space exploration is for everyone. The general public, students of all ages, and teachers can find an abundant list of activities and opportunities on the mission’s “get involved” webpage.
Opportunities include Psyche-focused undergraduate projects for senior capstone courses and an annual internship to interpret the mission through artistic and other creative works. Students and teachers can also find age-appropriate lessons, craft projects, and videos on the page. A virtual launch experience is planned as well, with more information at nasa.gov/specials/virtualguest/.
The mission websites nasa.gov/psyche and psyche.asu.edu will post official news about the spacecraft’s journey, along with glimpses of team members’ workdays. NASA and ASU will also post regular social media updates on Facebook, Instagram, and X.
NASA’s Eyes on the Solar System, a free web-based visualization tool, will track the location of the spacecraft in real time 3D. Visit go.nasa.gov/45k0OVY to see where Psyche is in the solar system.
About two months after launch, as the team performs an initial checkout of the spacecraft and science instruments, the mission expects to get the first images back from its multispectral imager. Once the team confirms the imager is functioning as expected, a webpage will feature the unprocessed, or raw, images flowing straight from the spacecraft to Earth. The first images will just be fields of stars, but you’ll be able to follow the spacecraft’s journey with Psyche’s own “eyes” as it heads toward its asteroid target and orbits this intriguing metal-rich world.
What’s Riding Along With Psyche?
Deep Space Optical Communication
Attached to a side of the Psyche spacecraft is a pioneering technology demonstration: NASA’s Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) experiment. Using a near-infrared laser, DSOC will be the agency’s first test of high-bandwidth optical communications between Earth and distances far exceeding the Moon.
To meet the demands of future space missions, current state-of-the-art radio systems would require huge increases in hardware size, mass, and power to transmit and receive high-bandwidth data such as high-definition images and video. Optical communications – also called laser communications – could potentially provide this essential bandwidth enhancement without requiring such hardware increases. Much like upgrading old telecommunications infrastructure on Earth with fiber optics to meet growing data demands, going from radio communications to laser communications would increase current data rate capacity by 10 to 100 times.
DSOC is not intended to relay Psyche mission data since the technology demonstration is planned for the first two years of the spacecraft’s cruise. But if it proves successful, the technology will be used by future human and robotic spacecraft to transmit huge volumes of science data, allowing more innovative space mission concepts to take flight. Ultimately, DSOC may pave the way for broadband communications that will help support humanity’s next giant leap: when NASA sends astronauts to Mars.