SpaceX Falcon Heavy Liftoff Imminent: NASA’s Psyche spacecraft Sets Sights on Earth-Like Asteroid

Psyche Spacecraft

This artist’s concept, updated as of June 2020, depicts NASA’s Psyche spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

NASA’s Psyche spacecraft, set to study an Earth-like asteroid, will also test advanced optical communication technology (DSOC) during its six-year journey, laying the groundwork for future space missions.

In the early hours of October 6, workers transported NASA’s Psyche spacecraft to the SpaceX hangar at Launch Complex 39A at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in preparation for launch. Earlier in the week, technicians completed the encapsulation of the spacecraft, along with the DSOC (Deep Space Optical Communications) technology demonstration, inside a clean room at the Astrotech Space Operations facility in Titusville, Florida.

NASA Psyche Spacecraft in Payload Fairings

Technicians encapsulate NASA’s Psyche spacecraft in its payload fairings – the cone at the top of the rocket – at the Astrotech Space Operations facility in Titusville, Florida, on Tuesday, October 3, 2023. Next, the spacecraft will move to SpaceX facilities at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Credit: NASA/Ben Smegelsky

Launch Mechanics

The fairings will protect the spacecraft from aerodynamic pressure and heat during launch. After the rocket’s second stage climbs to a high enough altitude, the fairings will separate from the vehicle and return to Earth. Soon, technicians will mate the spacecraft to a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket in preparation for launch, which is targeted for 10:16 a.m. EDT, Thursday, October 12.

Historic Significance

Psyche will be NASA’s first primary science mission launched to orbit by a Falcon Heavy rocket, and the second interplanetary mission SpaceX has launched on behalf of NASA. NASA’s Launch Services Program certified the rocket for use with the agency’s most complex and highest priority missions in early 2023 at the conclusion of a 2.5 year effort.

Falcon Heavy Demo Mission

Falcon Heavy Demo Mission. Credit: SpaceX

Psyche’s Mission

Psyche’s mission is to study an asteroid that may be like Earth’s core, composed of a mixture of rock and iron-nickel metal. The asteroid offers a unique window into these building blocks of planet formation and the opportunity to investigate a previously unexplored type of world. It will take about six years for the spacecraft to arrive at the asteroid’s orbit between Mars and Jupiter. Psyche will then spend around 26 months orbiting the asteroid at four different altitudes, the highest being approximately 440 miles and the lowest only about 40 miles above the surface, to gather information about its topography and composition as well as its magnetic and gravitational properties.

DSOC Technology Demonstration

The DSOC technology demonstration, NASA’s farthest-ever test of high-bandwidth optical communications, will happen during the first two years of the roughly six-year journey to Psyche. DSOC will send and receive test data from Earth using an invisible near-infrared laser, which can transmit data at 10 to 100 times the bandwidth of conventional radio wave systems used on spacecraft today. What the team learns from DSOC could support future agency missions, including humanity’s next giant leap: when NASA sends astronauts to Mars.

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