NASA’s Psyche mission embarks on a remarkable six-year voyage to explore an extraordinary asteroid abundant in rare metals

On October 13, 2023, NASA embarked on its first mission to explore a metal-rich world. The Psyche spacecraft, named after its target asteroid, was launched atop a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This historic liftoff marked SpaceX’s eighth Falcon Heavy flight since 2018, but the first with a NASA payload.

The principal investigator for the Psyche mission at Arizona State University, Lindy Elkins-Tanton, expressed her excitement about visiting a world with a metal surface. She explained that there are not many unexplored types of worlds in our solar system, making this mission particularly thrilling. Interestingly, Elkins-Tanton mentioned that they have no idea what Psyche actually looks like.

Located in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, the metal world known as Psyche will take approximately six years for the spacecraft to reach. This asteroid is about three times farther from the Sun than Earth. After separating from the Falcon Heavy’s second stage, the Psyche spacecraft deployed two cross-shaped solar arrays, increasing its span to about the size of a singles tennis court. These solar arrays not only power the science instruments but also enable the probe’s propulsion system. Using Hall-effect thrusters, the spacecraft will create electric and magnetic fields to accelerate and expel charged atoms of xenon, producing steady thrust. This clean propulsion system relies on sunlight for thrust, making it innovative and efficient.

Notably, Psyche is the first mission to use Hall-effect thrusters beyond the moon in deep space.

Around 100 days after its launch, once all systems and science instruments have been activated and checked out, the Psyche spacecraft will enter its first cruise period towards the metal-rich asteroid. However, it will need assistance from Mars to reach its destination. In May 2026, the spacecraft will utilize Mars’ gravity to increase its speed and change direction. While it will fly a safe distance above Mars, it will be close enough to benefit from a gravity assist. The spacecraft will likely be traveling at about 13,000 mph relative to the surface of Mars. Two days after this flyby, the spacecraft will begin its second cruise, which will last approximately 29 months and require continuous use of its thrusters. This second cruise will conclude as the probe approaches the asteroid Psyche in the spring of 2029.

Psyche, the asteroid, is an intriguing target for study as it could potentially be part or all of the iron-rich interior of a planetesimal. Scientists believe that this early planetary building block lost its outer rocky shell through repeated collisions with other large bodies during the formation of the solar system. The Psyche spacecraft will be the first to directly examine the interior of a previously-layered planetary body, providing valuable insights into the formation of Earth and other rocky planets.

Equipped with a pair of identical cameras, the Psyche spacecraft will capture images of the asteroid’s surface in different wavelengths of light. It also carries a gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer to determine the chemical composition of the surface material and a magnetometer to search for evidence of an ancient magnetic field. The presence of such a magnetic field would strongly suggest that the asteroid formed from the core of a planetary body.

Elkins-Tanton expressed her belief that Psyche will surprise us once we reach it and that our scientific understanding will be updated as a result. This is why she emphasizes the importance of this mission.

In addition to its primary mission, Psyche carries a technology demonstration that could revolutionize deep space communication with Earth. The Deep Space Optical Communications experiment, mounted on one side of the spacecraft, will use a near-infrared laser to test high-bandwidth transmissions at distances far exceeding the moon.

The Psyche mission represents a significant milestone in space exploration, offering the opportunity to study a metal-rich world and gain valuable insights into the formation of our own planet and others in the solar system. With its innovative propulsion system and cutting-edge scientific instruments, the Psyche spacecraft is poised to make groundbreaking discoveries and reshape our understanding of the universe.