Psyche mission to reach metallic asteroid 4 years earlier than planned
NASA announced on May 24, 2017, that it would be launching the Discovery-class Psyche mission one year earlier than planned, which will enable it to reach the nickel-iron asteroid of the same name four years earlier than previously planned. Thanks to spacecraft and trajectory redesigns, the probe is now scheduled to launch in 2022 and will reach its destination in 2026.
While just approved for funding this January, NASA’s Science Directorate wanted to get Psyche going as soon as possible.
“We challenged the mission design team to explore if an earlier launch date could provide a more efficient trajectory to the asteroid Psyche, and they came through in a big way,” said Jim Green, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters. “This will enable us to fulfill our science objectives sooner and at a reduced cost.”
Psyche was selected to be a Discovery mission – NASA’s series of lower-cost robotic missions exploring the Solar System – at the same time as the Lucy mission. Originally Lucy was scheduled to launch in 2021 with Psyche following in 2023. However, shortly after selecting the mission in January, NASA directed the Psyche team to research earlier opportunities.
The new, more efficient trajectory eliminates an Earth gravity-assist maneuver and stays farther from the Sun, reducing the spacecraft’s need for heat protection. Psyche will still swing by Mars for a gravity assist in 2023.
The spacecraft and the mission
To support the new mission trajectory, SSL (formerly known as Space Systems/Loral, LLC) redesigned the solar array system from a four-panel arrangement to a more powerful five-panel x-shaped design. The additional power and small size of the spacecraft will enable Psyche to reach its destination more quickly than a larger spacecraft.
The asteroid Psyche orbits the Sun between Mars and Jupiter and is made almost entirely of nickel-iron metal. Its location and composition will offer scientists a look into the violent collisions that formed Earth and the other terrestrial planets. Metallic asteroids like Psyche are also of interest to commercial interests such as Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, which hope to, one day, mine asteroids for resources including metals and water.
Scientifically, the spacecraft is designed to understand the building blocks of planet formation and explore this unknown world. More specifically, the mission team seeks to determine whether Psyche is the core of an early planet, how old it is, whether it formed in similar ways to Earth’s core, and what its surface is like. The instrument payload will include magnetometers, multispectral imagers, and a gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer.
“The biggest advantage [of the Psyche mission] is the excellent trajectory, which gets us there about twice as fast and is more cost effective,” said Principal Investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton of Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe. “We are all extremely excited that NASA was able to accommodate this earlier launch date. The world will see this amazing metal world so much sooner.”
Video courtesy of NASA
Bart Leahy is a freelance technical writer living in Orlando, Florida. Leahy's diverse career has included work for The Walt Disney Company, NASA, the Department of Defense, Nissan, a number of commercial space companies, small businesses, nonprofits, as well as the Science Cheerleaders.