Imminent Launch of SpaceX Falcon Heavy Carrying NASA’s Psyche Spacecraft to Study Earth-Similar Asteroid

by Liam O'Connor
SpaceX Falcon Heavy NASA Psyche Mission

This updated artist’s rendering as of June 2020 portrays the Psyche spacecraft commissioned by NASA. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

Scheduled to examine an asteroid resembling Earth, NASA’s Psyche spacecraft is also slated to trial cutting-edge Deep Space Optical Communication (DSOC) technology during its estimated six-year voyage. This will establish a foundation for subsequent space explorations.

In the pre-dawn hours of October 6, NASA’s Psyche spacecraft was moved to the SpaceX facility at Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center, as part of the launch preparations. Earlier in the week, the spacecraft, including its DSOC technology module, was sealed within a contamination-free environment at the Astrotech Space Operations center located in Titusville, Florida.

Technicians enclosed NASA’s Psyche spacecraft within its payload shrouds – the rocket’s protective cone – at the Astrotech Space Operations center in Titusville, Florida, on Tuesday, October 3, 2023. The spacecraft is next slated to be transferred to SpaceX facilities at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Credit: NASA/Ben Smegelsky

Launch Mechanics

The payload shrouds are designed to shield the spacecraft against aerodynamic stresses and thermal conditions during the launch sequence. Once the rocket’s second stage has achieved sufficient elevation, the shrouds will disengage from the launch vehicle and descend back to Earth. In the near future, engineers are expected to affix the spacecraft to a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, aiming for a launch time of 10:16 a.m. EDT on Thursday, October 12.

Historic Context

The Psyche mission represents NASA’s inaugural primary science mission to be propelled into orbit via a Falcon Heavy rocket. It is also SpaceX’s second interplanetary mission executed for NASA. Following a rigorous 2.5-year evaluation, NASA’s Launch Services Program endorsed the Falcon Heavy rocket for the agency’s most intricate and highest-priority projects in early 2023.

Falcon Heavy Test Mission. Credit: SpaceX

Objectives of Psyche’s Mission

The mission of the Psyche spacecraft is to scrutinize an asteroid believed to be analogous to Earth’s core, comprising a blend of rock and ferrous materials. This celestial body offers an unparalleled perspective into the rudimentary components involved in planetary genesis, providing a chance to explore a hitherto unexamined variety of celestial object. The spacecraft is projected to take approximately six years to reach the asteroid’s orbit, situated between Mars and Jupiter. Upon arrival, Psyche will undertake about 26 months of orbital study at varying elevations—ranging from an apex of approximately 440 miles to a nadir of roughly 40 miles above the asteroid’s surface—to collate data on its topological and compositional attributes as well as its magnetic and gravitational qualities.

DSOC Technological Showcase

During the first two years of its approximately six-year expedition to Psyche, the DSOC technology module will execute NASA’s most remote high-bandwidth optical communications test to date. Utilizing a nearly invisible near-infrared laser, DSOC aims to transmit and receive test data from Earth at a bandwidth rate 10 to 100 times greater than current radio frequency systems in use on spacecraft. The insights gained from the DSOC experiment could prove invaluable for propelling future NASA missions, including the subsequent monumental step of sending astronauts to Mars.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about SpaceX Falcon Heavy NASA Psyche Mission

What is the primary mission of NASA’s Psyche spacecraft?

The primary mission of NASA’s Psyche spacecraft is to study an asteroid that is believed to be similar to Earth’s core. This asteroid is composed of a mixture of rock and iron-nickel metal. The spacecraft aims to gather information about the asteroid’s topography, composition, magnetic, and gravitational properties during its approximately 26-month orbital study.

Who is responsible for launching the Psyche spacecraft?

The SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket is responsible for launching NASA’s Psyche spacecraft. This marks NASA’s first primary science mission to be launched into orbit by a Falcon Heavy rocket and SpaceX’s second interplanetary mission executed on behalf of NASA.

What additional technology will Psyche test during its mission?

Apart from its primary objective, the Psyche spacecraft will also test advanced Deep Space Optical Communication (DSOC) technology. This technology aims to transmit and receive test data from Earth using a near-infrared laser, providing a bandwidth rate that is 10 to 100 times greater than conventional radio frequency systems.

Where and when was the Psyche spacecraft prepared for launch?

The Psyche spacecraft was prepared for launch at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, with the encapsulation work being done earlier at the Astrotech Space Operations facility in Titusville, Florida. The spacecraft was moved to SpaceX’s facilities at Launch Complex 39A in the early hours of October 6, and the launch is targeted for 10:16 a.m. EDT, Thursday, October 12.

What steps have been taken to certify the Falcon Heavy rocket for this mission?

The Falcon Heavy rocket was certified by NASA’s Launch Services Program for the agency’s most complex and highest-priority missions. This certification came after a rigorous 2.5-year evaluation process and was concluded in early 2023.

What will the DSOC technology demonstration achieve?

The DSOC technology demonstration aims to be NASA’s farthest-ever test of high-bandwidth optical communications. It is intended to happen during the first two years of the roughly six-year journey to the asteroid. Insights gained from this test could be invaluable for future NASA missions, including potentially sending astronauts to Mars.

What protective measures are in place for the spacecraft during launch?

The spacecraft will be enclosed within payload fairings, also known as payload shrouds. These fairings are designed to protect the spacecraft from aerodynamic pressures and thermal conditions during the launch. Once the rocket reaches a sufficient altitude, the fairings will separate and return to Earth.

How long will it take for the Psyche spacecraft to reach its target asteroid?

The spacecraft is projected to take approximately six years to reach the asteroid’s orbit, which is situated between Mars and Jupiter. Once there, Psyche will undertake about 26 months of orbital study at varying altitudes.

More about SpaceX Falcon Heavy NASA Psyche Mission

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KarenM October 7, 2023 - 11:52 pm

Falcon Heavy got certified after 2.5 years of tests? That’s a long vetting process, must be really safe then.

Mike_TechReview October 7, 2023 - 11:54 pm

so DSOC will give us 100x the bandwidth? That’s nuts. just imagine the amount of data we can get back from deep space missions!

Roberto.C October 8, 2023 - 4:42 am

When i read about the payload shrouds, i wondered how they manage to protect against the extreme conditions in space. Engineering at its best, i guess.

Alice_W October 8, 2023 - 4:52 am

What really got my attention was the 26-month orbital study. Imagine the kind of detailed analysis they can do in that time frame.

Gary1991 October 8, 2023 - 7:01 am

SpaceX doing another interplanetary mission, nice. They’re just racking up the milestones, aren’t they?

Samantha Q October 8, 2023 - 9:05 am

This is really pushing the boundaries of space exploration. DSOC tech sounds like the future. NASA and SpaceX working together, what’s not to love?

SciGeek42 October 8, 2023 - 11:24 am

It’s like the perfect marriage between cutting-edge rocket tech and ambitious space science. Can’t wait to see how this mission unfolds.

ElaineS October 8, 2023 - 1:36 pm

Six years to get to the asteroid? That’s commitment. I hope I’m around to see what they discover.

John D. October 8, 2023 - 2:55 pm

Wow, can’t believe Psyche is finally gonna get launched. Falcon Heavy is a beast, gonna be awesome to see it liftoff with such an important payload!


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