Today, October 13, 2023, at 14:19 UTC a Falcon Heavy rocket successfully lifted off with the Psyche spacecraft from Launch Complex 39A, at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The two rocket’s side boosters, designated B1064-4 and B1065-4, returned back and land to Landing Zone 1 (LZ-1) and Landing Zone 2 (LZ-2) approximately 8 minutes after launch, while the center core booster, B1079-1, was deliberately expended and finished its run into the sea, as planned.
At 15:22 UTC, the spacecraft detached successfully from the Falcon’s second stage, moving into its planned trajectory away from Earth and beginning the long journey to its destination, asteroid 16 Psyche. After the release, the 25-meter solar panel arrays unfolded successfully, the spacecraft started to use the energy produced by the sunlight. Psyche then rotated to position the low gain antenna towards the Earth, maintaining the vehicle in permanent communication with the Space Flight Operation Center at Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
16 Psyche, a unique heavy metal world
When the asteroid hunter Annibale De Gasparis found a new planet in the sky above Naples on March 17, 1852, he could not imagine that it was a metal world, one of a kind in the entire Solar System.
16 Psyche is a massive asteroid (226 km in diameter) with such a high density (estimated between 3.4 and 4.1 kg/m³) that scientists consider it mainly made of metals such as iron and nickel.
These peculiar characteristics indicate that Psyche could be the remnant core of a planetesimal whose mantel has been stripped away by violent collisions with other objects. If the theory proves correct, exploring Psyche will be like exploring a planet’s most inaccessible inner part.
“We are going to outer space to see inner space.”— Lindy Elkins Tanton, principal investigator of the Psyche mission
Scientific instruments and new technologies
Named as the asteroid it will visit, Psyche is the result of the collaboration with Maxar Technologies, which provided the bus, the propulsion, and most of the engineering hardware.
The spacecraft will host several scientific instruments, such as:
- Multispectral Imager, made of two cameras, filters, and telescopic lens to acquire very detailed pictures at many wavelengths;
- Gamma-ray and Neutron Spectrometer, mounted on a 2-meter boom to ensure an unobstructed view and give measures of the asteroid’s elemental composition;
- Magnetometer, two high-sensitivity magnetic field sensors will register the remanent magnetic field.
Psyche will host a new experimental communication system, the Deep Space Optical Communication (DSOC). It will test the laser communication technology from deep space to Earth, allowing it to send more data than the classic radio communication.
Mission to Psyche, to boldly go where no probe has gone before
The Mission to Psyche’s initial plan was to launch in 2022 and reach the asteroid in 2026. Due to several technical and managerial issues during Covid-19 restrictions, the project timeline had to be adjusted.
Thanks to the four solar-electric Hall thrusters and a gravity assist maneuver around Mars in 2026, the rendezvous with the metal rocky world will happen in August 2029.
Once there, the spacecraft will enter the 26-month science phase. It will orbit Psyche in five trajectories at various altitudes to conduct the scheduled scientific experiments and reach the mission goals.
As happened to NASA’s Dawn mission, the Psyche spacecraft will become a moon of its target, a metal satellite of a metal asteroid.
*Cover photo credits: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani