Preparing for Liftoff: NASA’s Psyche Spacecraft Set to Launch on SpaceX Falcon Heavy

by Liam O'Connor
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NASA's Psyche Mission

Preparing for Liftoff: NASA’s Psyche Spacecraft Set to Launch on SpaceX Falcon Heavy

On Wednesday, October 11, 2023, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida displayed the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket with the Psyche spacecraft onboard at Launch Complex 39A, as they finalize preparations for the forthcoming Psyche mission. The spacecraft aims to explore a metal-abundant asteroid, also named Psyche, situated between Mars and Jupiter. The mission will additionally include a demonstration of NASA’s advanced Deep Space Optical Communications technology, designed for laser communication beyond lunar orbit. Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

Scheduled for an October 13 launch on a Falcon Heavy rocket, the spacecraft is on a mission to analyze a metal-rich asteroid that could offer insights into planetary formation.

In a time frame of less than a day, the Psyche spacecraft is expected to lift off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This marks NASA’s inaugural scientific mission to be propelled by a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, focused on investigating an enigmatic asteroid also named Psyche.

The takeoff is planned for 10:19 a.m. EDT on Friday, October 13, and there are additional launch windows identified daily through October 25. These windows are instantaneous, signifying that each day offers just one precise moment for possible liftoff.

Henry Stone, the project manager for Psyche at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, emphasized the rigorous efforts put in by the team to prepare the spacecraft. He noted that all systems, scientific instruments, and software have been meticulously assembled and tested, and the spacecraft is flight-ready. The team eagerly awaits the launch and is committed to fulfilling the mission objectives, contributing to another milestone in the realm of scientific exploration.

On October 6, 2023, the encapsulated Psyche spacecraft was moved from Astrotech Space Operations Facility in Titusville to Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Pad 39A. It will ascend on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket and carry with it an innovative technology demonstration, NASA’s Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) experiment. Credit: NASA/Ben Smegelsky

Details on Payload and Preparation

The spacecraft’s solar panels are neatly folded and stored for the launch. Extensive testing has been carried out on all systems and a payload comprising three scientific instruments. The spacecraft is fueled with 1,085 kilograms (2,392 pounds) of xenon gas, serving as its propellant for the journey to the asteroid belt. The spacecraft and its payload fairing, designed to shield it from aerodynamic stresses and thermal conditions during ascent, have been affixed to the Falcon Heavy, which is stationed at Launch Complex 39A for imminent liftoff.

Incorporated within the spacecraft is a technological demonstration named Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC). This technology aims to evaluate high-data-rate laser communications that could be employed in future NASA missions, extending beyond lunar range. This particular demo will not serve to transmit mission-related data for Psyche.

Launch Procedures

The Falcon Heavy rocket features two main stages and a pair of side boosters. Once the boosters have separated and returned to Earth, the central core will be discharged into the Atlantic Ocean. The rocket’s second stage will then activate its engine to propel Psyche away from Earth’s gravitational pull.

Approximately four minutes post-launch, after exiting Earth’s atmosphere, the payload fairing will detach, splitting into two and falling back to Earth. An hour after liftoff, the spacecraft is expected to disengage from the upper rocket stage. Shortly thereafter, its dual solar arrays will unfold and orient themselves towards the Sun. The spacecraft will then establish preliminary communications with Earth, directed by a low-gain antenna.

Communication could take up to two hours to establish post-separation. Once stable communication links are verified, the spacecraft will be transitioned into its designated operational mode. The initial three months of the mission will include a series of tests to ensure all systems and the electric thrusters are performing as expected. Approximately five months into the mission, the spacecraft will activate its thrusters to adjust its trajectory toward the targeted asteroid.

Objectives and Features of the Mission

The Psyche spacecraft employs a solar-electric propulsion system, which functions by accelerating xenon ions to generate thrust. The spacecraft will traverse nearly 3.6 billion kilometers (approximately 2.2 billion miles) over a span of almost six years to reach the asteroid Psyche, located in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

En route, in May 2026, the spacecraft will pass by Mars and utilize the planet’s gravity to accelerate and alter its course, thereby conserving propellant. Upon arrival at the asteroid in 2029, it is scheduled to orbit Psyche for around 26 months to collect images and other data.

The scientific community postulates that the asteroid Psyche might be a remnant of a planetesimal core, primarily made of a mix of rock and metallic iron-nickel. This mission aims to study these materials, not for extraction but to better understand the constitution of Earth’s core and the genesis of rocky planets within our solar system.

Additional Information on the Mission

Arizona State University is at the forefront of the Psyche mission. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a subdivision of Caltech in Pasadena, is responsible for mission management, systems engineering, integration, testing, and operations. Maxar Technologies of Palo Alto, California, provided the high-power solar-electric propulsion spacecraft frame.

The Deep Space Optical Communications experiment (DSOC) falls under the purview of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate and the Space Communications and Navigation program, overseen by JPL.

NASA’s Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Services Program supervises and approves launch vehicles and coordinates the launch service for the Psyche mission. After a comprehensive evaluation period of 2.5 years, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket received NASA certification in early 2023 for its most critical missions.

This mission is the 14th undertaking in NASA’s Discovery Program, administered by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about NASA’s Psyche Mission

What is the NASA’s Psyche mission all about?

The Psyche mission is a NASA-led initiative aiming to explore a unique metal-rich asteroid, also named Psyche, located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The spacecraft is set to study the composition of the asteroid, which could offer significant insights into the formation of planets.

When is the Psyche spacecraft scheduled to launch?

The spacecraft is targeting a liftoff on October 13, 2023. There are additional opportunities for launch each day through October 25, with each opportunity being instantaneous, meaning there is only one exact time per day when the launch can occur.

What rocket will carry the Psyche spacecraft?

The Psyche spacecraft will be launched atop a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This marks NASA’s first scientific mission to be launched on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket.

What technology will the Psyche spacecraft carry for demonstration?

The spacecraft is equipped with NASA’s Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) technology. This technology will test high-data-rate laser communications beyond the Moon for the first time.

What are the objectives of the mission?

The primary objective is to study the asteroid Psyche’s composition, believed to be rich in metal and possibly similar to Earth’s core. The data collected may help scientists better understand how planets, including Earth, were formed.

How long will the mission last?

The spacecraft will journey for nearly six years, reaching the asteroid in 2029. Once it arrives, it is planned to spend about 26 months in orbit around the asteroid, collecting data.

Who are the key organizations involved in the Psyche mission?

Arizona State University is spearheading the mission, while NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is handling mission management, systems engineering, integration, testing, and operations. Maxar Technologies supplied the high-power solar electric propulsion spacecraft frame.

How will the spacecraft propel itself?

The spacecraft employs a solar electric propulsion system that uses xenon gas. The system works by accelerating and expelling charged atoms of xenon to create a thrust that will propel the spacecraft to the asteroid belt.

What was the preparation process for the mission?

All systems, science instruments, and software on the spacecraft have been integrated and extensively tested. The spacecraft is fully configured for flight and sits inside the launch vehicle’s cone-shaped payload fairing, which protects it during launch.

What certification did the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket receive for this mission?

Following a comprehensive 2 ½-year assessment, the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket received certification in early 2023 for NASA’s most crucial missions.

More about NASA’s Psyche Mission

  • NASA’s Official Psyche Mission Page
  • SpaceX Falcon Heavy Launch Details
  • Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) Technology
  • Arizona State University’s Psyche Mission Overview
  • NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Mission Management
  • Maxar Technologies Solar Electric Propulsion
  • NASA’s Discovery Program
  • NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center

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