NASA’s Psyche spacecraft has been achieving significant milestones during its journey to explore the asteroid Psyche in the main asteroid belt. Departing Earth on October 13, the spacecraft has been successful in powering on scientific instruments, transmitting data, and setting a deep-space record with its electric thrusters. One recent achievement includes turning on Psyche’s twin cameras on December 4, capturing the first images known as “first light.”
The imager instrument, equipped with a pair of identical cameras, recently captured 68 images within a star field in the constellation Pisces. The data obtained is crucial for verifying proper commanding, telemetry analysis, and image calibration. These initial images are considered just the beginning, with more exciting visuals anticipated during future milestones in 2026, including test images of Mars, and in 2029, when Psyche will capture images of its target asteroid.
Psyche’s imager uses multiple color filters to capture images in various wavelengths of light, visible and invisible to the human eye. This approach aids in determining the composition of the asteroid, and the team plans to create 3D maps to understand its geology, providing insights into Psyche’s history.
In late October, the magnetometer was powered on, detecting unexpected solar eruptions, known as coronal mass ejections. This information is valuable for understanding the asteroid’s formation. The team confirmed the magnetometer’s precision in detecting small magnetic fields and noted the spacecraft’s magnetic “quietness,” essential for accurate science detections.
To set an important milestone on November 8, Psyche’s team fired up two of the four electric propulsion thrusters, marking the first-ever use of Hall-effect thrusters in deep space. These thrusters, expelling charged atoms of xenon gas, will facilitate the spacecraft’s journey to the asteroid and its orbital maneuvers. Subsequently, the Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) experiment achieved first light on November 14, setting a record for optical communications demonstrations from beyond the Moon. DSOC successfully transmitted and received optical data from almost 10 million miles away, showcasing advancements in space communication technology.
The gamma-ray detecting component of the third science instrument, the gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer, was successfully powered on, and the neutron-detecting sensors are scheduled to be activated in the coming week. These capabilities will aid in determining the chemical elements on the asteroid’s surface.
Launched on October 13, 2023, from Cape Canaveral, Florida, aboard SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, Psyche marks a significant milestone as the first interplanetary mission for the Falcon Heavy. Spearheaded by Arizona State University (ASU), the mission entails collaboration with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for comprehensive oversight, including mission management, system engineering, integration and testing, and mission operations. Maxar Technologies contributed the high-power solar electric propulsion chassis to the spacecraft, while ASU, in partnership with Malin Space Science Systems, manages the operations of the imager instrument.
As the 14th mission within NASA’s Discovery Program, overseen by the Marshall Space Flight Center, Psyche continues to advance steadily, with ongoing preparations for in-depth investigations as it navigates its course toward the asteroid belt, offering exciting prospects for unraveling the mysteries of the metal-rich asteroid Psyche.
Psyche potentially originated from a planetesimal or a proto-planet that remained incomplete, possibly undergoing fragmentation due to collisions and gravitational forces. Early analyses suggest it might have constituted the core of the planetesimal, making it an intriguing target for exploration, surpassing the concept of a journey to the Earth’s core.
Initial hypotheses speculate that Psyche might represent a distinct object with an exceptionally high metal content, offering a unique glimpse into the early solar system. Unlike traditional planetary bodies, it could serve as a valuable source of information about the solar system’s nascent stages.
Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis discovered Psyche in 1852, and recent investigations have ignited interest akin to a potential space-based “gold rush.” Numerous startups express a desire to mine Psyche, enticed by its iron and nickel composition, speculated to be worth up to $10 quintillion at current metal prices if extracted from the asteroid.
For now, though, Psyche is most valuable as a scientific target for the similarly named probe headed its way. It has gradually been turning its instruments on to test and calibrate them. Most recently, its imager was activated to capture images of objects in the constellation Pisces to test its calibration. Already 16 million miles from Earth, Psyche is scheduled to reach its destination in 2029, where it will study the metal-rich asteroid to unravel its composition and geological history.