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ASU's Psyche team reports success as they approach new stages of mission

The Psyche team is starting to build their spacecraft and outline what they expect the rest of the mission to look like


A Maxar technician prepares to integrate part of Psyche’s electric propulsion subsystem on Thursday, April 16, 2020.

ASU's Psyche Mission spacecraft is set to become the first visitor to the historic Psyche asteroid. Psyche, unlike any other in our solar system, is a large asteroid likely made mostly of metal.

Many of the asteroids in our solar system reside between the planets Jupiter and Mars as they orbit our Sun. Psyche, along with nearly 2 million other asteroids, exists in this asteroid belt. The difference from others, however, is Psyche's composition and mass. 

Unlike most other asteroids that are rocky or icy, Psyche may be metal-rich and may consist largely of metal from the core of an early planet, much like the core of Earth, said NASA in their online Psyche mission overview statement. The asteroid is also unique in size, with a diameter comparable to the distance between Los Angeles and San Diego.

Investigating this rare, metal-rich body may reveal the secrets within the core of planets and their formation processes.

Phase A: Completed

In September of 2015, NASA selected ASU's Psyche Mission to develop a detailed concept study for consideration for the NASA Discovery Program

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory's decision process is extremely selective, said NASA’s Public Affairs Officer Joshua Handal.

For the next year and a half, the Psyche team worked on their $750 million proposal in an attempt to achieve NASA's sponsorship for the mission.

On Jan. 4, 2017, NASA announced its selection. The Psyche spacecraft will be the first human-made vessel ever to visit a metal asteroid, and ASU will contribute to scientific history.

"I knew from the moment our proposal was chosen that my life would never be the same," said the principal investigator the mission Lindy Elkins-Tanton. 

Phase B: Completed

The science and engineering sub-teams working on the Psyche Mission prepare the initial design of all the instruments that are required to analyze the asteroid. 

"The Psyche spacecraft will carry a multispectral imager, a gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer, and a magnetometer, and will conduct radio science," said the Psyche webpage.

From capturing images to measuring elemental composition, each of these instruments performs important tasks and report back to the appropriate institution. ASU, Johns Hopkins University, MIT and NASA are all contributing to and responsible for pieces of the spacecraft. 

"The Psyche mission will test new light communication technology that encodes data to communicate between an entity in deep space and Earth," said Jim Bell, the deputy principal investigator of the Psyche Mission.

The team considers it the current phase, Phase C, the most important and challenging of the whole mission, said Elkins-Tanton.

Phase C: In progress

In June 2019, scientific art comes to life as the science and engineering team begins to actually build the instruments that once lived only on paper. 

This inspection from the NASA Review Board will either approve or deny the team's ability to go forward with the build and the assembly to launch. 

"Every piece of the spacecraft, staffing, budget, schedule, and the management of the mission must be inspected and deemed prepared," said Bell. 

The shape of the spacecraft resembles that of a dragonfly, with a body in the middle and two solar-paneled wings. Each wing is two and a half times longer than a telephone pole.

By the end of May, the team is expected to have completed building the body of the spacecraft. The body will be around the size of a small car, with a height of a 10-foot-tall basketball hoop. 

Phase D: Upcoming

The team anticipates major mission milestones in Phase D. They will assemble the Psyche spacecraft and test each instrument. 

The mission will use a Falcon Heavy rocket that will launch from Launch Complex 39A at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in August 2022, said NASA in a press release

"With the transition into this new mission phase, we are one big step closer to uncovering the secrets of Psyche, a giant mysterious metallic asteroid, and that means the world to us," said Elkins-Tanton in a statement when NASA announced that it was approving the mission.

Once in space, the Psyche spacecraft provides its own propulsion past Mars and on to the asteroid.

Phase E: Upcoming

The spacecraft will use the gravity of Mars to increase speed and to establish its trajectory to intersect with Psyche as it orbits around the Sun. This maneuver works like a slingshot and will save the team time and money, said Elkins-Tanton.

In January 2026, the Psyche spacecraft and the asteroid will meet for the first time. They will get to know each other intimately, as the spacecraft will orbit for 21 months while it analyzes the asteroid's orbit, axis, geography and elemental composition.

"We have never seen, up close, what a world of metal looks like. I bet what nature is going to show us is going to be weirder than what we can imagine," said Bell. 

Students at ASU maintain a heavy involvement in the Psyche mission. Current students are learning in real-time how to plan and manage a space mission. They will take on tasks with problems that the team is genuinely trying to address, whether that be with the spacecraft or some other issue related to Psyche. 

"The students who will be collecting the actual data of Psyche aren't even in college right now. There are high schoolers out there that are going to be working on this stuff and they don't even know it yet," Bell said.

This access to data is not limited to ASU students, however. Everyone in the world will be able to look at the data at the same time the scientists are. 

"That's how we feel space exploration should be done. We have the right to keep the data secret within the team for a certain period of time to come up with the first couple of interpretations, but we think it is really important to share," Elkins-Tanton said.

Phase F: Upcoming

After its insightful 21 months of orbiting the asteroid, the Psyche spacecraft will have revealed the secrets that lie within the core of the planets of the solar system. 

"We've explored terrestrial planets, gas giants, and a range of other bodies orbiting the Sun … These additional pieces of the puzzle will help us understand how the Sun and its family of planets formed... and what the future may hold," said Jim Green, NASA's former Planetary Science Director. 

In November of 2027, the scientific team will delicately power off the systems aboard Psyche and discontinue communications.  

The data collection may cease, but the orbiting will not. The Psyche spacecraft will continue to orbit the asteroid not just as a hunk of metal, but as a piece of history amid the curious quest for cosmic understanding. 

Correction: This article was updated on Monday, June 8 to explain the amount of metal in Psyche, the jet propulsion selection process and the aircraft's trip to the asteroid. 

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