NASA’s Psyche mission has passed a critical milestone that brings it one step closer to launch. After an intensive review of the mission’s progress in building its science instruments and engineering systems, Psyche obtained clearance to advance into what NASA calls Phase D of its life cycle, the final phase of operations before its scheduled launch in August 2022.
Until now, the mission has focused on planning, designing and building the body of the spacecraft, its solar-electric propulsion system, the three scientific instruments, the electronics, the power subsystem and the like. Successful review of those elements means the mission can now begin delivering components to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the project and will test, assemble, and integrate each part.
“It’s really the final phase, when all the pieces of the puzzle come together and we’re getting on the rocket. This is the most intense part of everything that happens in the field “, said Lindy Elkins-Tanton of Arizona State University, who as Principal Investigator for Psyche is leading the mission.
Psyche’s target is an intriguing metal-rich asteroid of the same name (estimated to be worth several times that of the global economy), orbiting the Sun in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Scientists think that, unlike rocky or icy asteroids, Psyche 16 is primarily iron, gold, and nickel and could be the heart of a primitive planet that lost its outer layers. Exploring the asteroid Psyche 16 (about 140 miles or 226 kilometers wide) could provide valuable information about how Earth and other planets formed.
The precious metals of which the asteroid Psyche is composed would have a commercial value on our planet of approximately 10,000 quadrillion dollars, an exorbitant figure considering that the entire global economy, According to the magazine Forbes, it’s about 74 trillion dollars; and according Visual Capitalist about $ 88 trillion.
The Psyche spacecraft will use a magnetometer to detect a potential magnetic field; If the asteroid has one, it is a strong indicator that it was once the core of a primitive planet. A multispectral imager will capture images of the surface, as well as collect information about the composition and topography of the asteroid. The spectrometers will analyze neutrons and gamma rays coming from the surface to reveal the elements that make up the object.
The main structure of the spacecraft, called the Solar Electric Propulsion Chassis (SEP), was designed and built by Maxar Technologies and is nearing completion. Maxar’s team in Palo Alto, California, is preparing to ship it to JPL’s main clean room in March when assembly, test and launch operations begin.
Each instrument will then undergo further testing. That includes a laser technology demonstration called Deep Space Optical Communications, led by JPL, which uses a super-efficient method of transmitting data with photons or fundamental particles of visible light. The thermal, telecommunications, propulsion, power, avionics and other engineering subsystems will also be tested, along with the flight computer.
“The project has made tremendous progress, particularly given the world around us and COVID-19 and managing the limitations it imposes.”said Henry Stone of JPL, Psyche project manager. “We are in very good shape. We are on the right track and we have a plan to move forward to launch. “
Although engineers and technicians have had to deal with forced shutdowns by the pandemic and adhere to additional security protocols for those doing hands-on work on the spacecraft, the project remains on schedule.
“The fact that we can still make this happen and that we are overcoming our challenges feels almost miraculous,” Elkins-Tanton said. “And it’s also an incredible gift to keep us all focused and moving forward through a difficult time. So reaching this milestone has a special meaning, not only for this project that we have been working on for a decade, but also for what has been happening more recently in all of our lives. “
By spring 2022, the spacecraft will be fully assembled and ready to ship to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, where it will launch in August 2022. Psyche will fly over Mars for gravity assist in May 2023 And in early 2026, it will enter orbit around the asteroid, where it will spend 21 months collecting data for analysis.
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