In a significant milestone for space exploration, SpaceX successfully launched NASA's Psyche spacecraft today, October 13, at 10:19 a.m. EDT from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This mission is set to explore the intriguing metal-rich asteroid named Psyche, which orbits the Sun between Jupiter and Mars. The primary objective of this mission is to study the exposed nickel-iron core of this early planetesimal, providing valuable insights into the fundamental building blocks of our solar system. In addition to its planetary exploration mission, Psyche will also demonstrate NASA's Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) system, enabling high-bandwidth optical communication through vast interplanetary distances using a near-infrared laser.
The spacecraft was launched by SpaceX's most powerful Falcon Heavy rocket, featuring an impressive 27 Merlin engines that generated more than 5,000,000 pounds of thrust. The Falcon Heavy's first stage includes three Falcon 9 boosters, with the central booster carrying the Psyche spacecraft. Notably, both previously-flown side boosters from the Falcon Heavy successfully landed at SpaceX's Landing Zone 1 and Landing Zone 2 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.
Following stage separation, Falcon Heavy’s two side boosters returned to Earth and land at SpaceX’s Landing Zones 1 and 2 pic.twitter.com/7zMQ1eVZkP— SpaceX (@SpaceX) October 13, 2023
The Psyche mission controllers on Earth have already established full contact with the spacecraft, and the solar arrays have been fully deployed. These solar arrays, in a distinctive cross shape, offer approximately 800 square feet of solar collecting surface, making the spacecraft about the size of a singles tennis court when fully extended. As the Psyche spacecraft embarks on its journey to the asteroid, the solar arrays will produce over 20 kilowatts of power when it's closer to Earth. However, this will decrease to just over 2 kilowatts when it reaches the distant asteroid Psyche, still sufficient to power the spacecraft's various systems and instruments. SpaceX shared an incredible video of the spacecraft’s deployment, linked below.
View from the second stage before the escape burn and deployment of the Psyche spacecraft pic.twitter.com/Z25P7gN9NA— SpaceX (@SpaceX) October 13, 2023
The spacecraft will now travel six years and ~2.2 billion miles to the asteroid Psyche, currently orbiting the Sun between Mars and Jupiter https://t.co/29bfT6fod2— SpaceX (@SpaceX) October 13, 2023
The spacecraft employs a solar electric propulsion system that employs electromagnetic fields to accelerate and expel charged atoms (ions) of the neutral gas xenon, which generates the thrust needed for propulsion. Without atmospheric drag, the spacecraft will achieve speeds of up to 124,000 mph relative to Earth during its interplanetary journey to the asteroid belt. In the initial stages of its approximately six-year journey, the Psyche spacecraft will undergo a 100-day checkout period to ensure all systems function correctly before firing up its thrusters. Approximately 2.5 years post-launch, the spacecraft will make a gravity assist flyby of Mars. The mission's cruise period will conclude around June 2029, allowing the imagers on the spacecraft to capture photographs of the asteroid Psyche. In August 2029, the spacecraft will enter its first of 26 months of planned orbits around the metal-rich asteroid.
The DSOC technology demonstration, an integral part of this mission, will leverage an invisible near-infrared laser to send and receive test data, offering data transmission rates 10 to 100 times faster than conventional radio wave systems used on spacecraft today. DSOC will continue its operations for nearly 2 years following the Psyche mission launch, en route to its scheduled Mars flyby in 2026.
The Psyche mission is spearheaded by Arizona State University, with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory overseeing mission management, operations, and navigation. NASA's Launch Services Program, based at Kennedy Space Center, was instrumental in certifying the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket for this mission, marking the conclusion of a 2.5-year effort to certify the rocket for use with NASA's most complex and highest-priority missions. The successful launch of the Psyche spacecraft represents a significant step in unraveling the mysteries of our solar system and advancing deep space communication technologies.
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Featured Images Source: SpaceX
About the Author
Evelyn Janeidy Arevalo
Evelyn J. Arevalo joined Tesmanian in 2019 to cover news as a Space Journalist and SpaceX Starbase Texas Correspondent. Evelyn is specialized in rocketry and space exploration. The main topics she covers are SpaceX and NASA.