The mission to explore a metal-rich asteroid ranges from planning the details to building real pieces of the spacecraft puzzle.
Psyche that NASA The mission to explore a metal rock asteroid of the same name recently passed a crucial milestone that brings it closer to its launch date in August 2022. Now the mission moves from planning and design to high-speed manufacturing of the spacecraft hardware that will fly to its destination in the main asteroid belt Mars and Jupiter.
As with all NASA missions, early work on Psyche began with the creation of digital blueprints. Then technical models were built that were tested and re-tested to confirm that the systems would do their job in space – by operating the spaceship, collecting scientific data, and transmitting it back to Earth.
And the team has just gone through a key phase in this process, the critical design review. At this point, NASA is studying the designs for all project systems, including the three scientific instruments and all subsystems for spacecraft technology, from telecommunications, propulsion and energy to avionics and the flight computer.
“It is one of the most intense reviews a mission goes through in its entire life cycle,” said Lindy Elkins-Tanton, who is the lead researcher for Psyche, leading the overall mission. “And we passed with flying colors. The challenges are not over and we are not there, but we are strong. “
Study a world of metal rock
Mission scientists and engineers worked together to plan the studies that determine what constitutes the asteroid psyche, one of the most fascinating targets in the main asteroid belt. Scientists believe that unlike most other asteroids that are rocky or icy bodies, psyche is largely made up of metallic iron and nickel – similar to the core of the earth – and could be the heart of an early planet that has lost its outer layers.
Since we cannot examine the Earth’s core up close, research into the asteroid psyche (approximately 226 kilometers wide) could provide valuable insights into the formation of our own planet and others.
For this purpose, the spaceship Psyche uses a magnetometer to measure the magnetic field of the asteroid. A multispectral imager captures images of the surface as well as data on the composition and topography. Spectrometers analyze the neutrons and gamma rays that come from the surface to identify the elements that make up the asteroid itself.
The mission team produced prototypes and technical models of the scientific instruments and many technical subsystems of the spacecraft. These models are made with less expensive materials than those that will fly on the mission. In this way, they can be thoroughly tested before the actual flight hardware is built.
“This is planning steroids,” said Elkins-Tanton, who is also the executive director and co-chair of the Interplanetary Initiative at Arizona State University in Tempe. “This includes trying to understand up to seven or eight levels of detail how everything on the spaceship has to work together to ensure that we can measure our science, collect our data, and send all the data back to Earth. The complexity is mind-blowing. “
Build the spaceship
Now that Psyche is in full swing building hardware, you have no time to waste. Assembly and testing of the entire spacecraft will begin in February 2021, and each instrument – including a demonstration of laser technology called Deep Space Optical Communications, led by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory – will have to be delivered by April 2021 JPLMain cleaning room.
The main part of the spacecraft, the so-called Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) chassis, is already being built at Maxar Technologies in Palo Alto, California. Taking into account the socially distancing requirements COVID-19 Prevention engineers work there to install the drive tanks. In February 2021, Maxar will deliver the SEP chassis to JPL in Southern California and a few months later will deliver the solar systems that provide all of the power for the spacecraft systems.
JPL, which manages the mission, is now also doing psyche work. Engineers who are essential for practical work build and test electronic components in compliance with the COVID-19 safety requirements. The rest of the JPL team works remotely.
JPL provides the avionics subsystem to which Psyche’s flight computer belongs – the brain of the spacecraft. Using devices distributed on racks in a clean room, engineers test each part before integrating it into the next. As soon as everything is connected, they test the entire system with the software and operate the electronics exactly as they are used in flight.
“One of the things we’re proud of on these space missions is the reliability of the hardware,” said Henry Stone, Psyche project manager at JPL. “The integrated system is so sophisticated that extensive tests are crucial. They run robustness tests, stress tests and as many tests as possible.
“You now want to uncover and fix every problem and error. Because after the start you can not repair the hardware. “
Next up for Psyche: the deadline for the start of assembly, testing and starting in February 2021, also known as ATLO.
“I get goose bumps – absolutely,” Stone said. “When we get to this point, you’ve gone through a big phase because you know you’ve done enough prototyping and testing. You will have a spaceship that should work. “
Psyche is scheduled to launch in August 2022 and will fly to Mars in early 2026 on its way to arriving at the asteroid in early 2026 to assist gravity.
More about the mission
ASU is leading the mission. JPL in Southern California is responsible for overall management, system technology, integration, testing, and mission operations. Maxar Technologies offers a powerful solar electric drive room chassis.