NASA’s Psyche Mission is tentatively scheduled to launch in October 2023, after a year-long delay from a planned launch window in August 2022.
The project was announced in 2017 and is led by an ASU team of professors to explore the metal-rich 16 Psyche asteroid.
Guided by the principal investigator and ASU professor Lindy Elkins-Tanton, the mission will now trace a new flight plan around Mars. The planet’s gravitational assist is required to propel the spacecraft to the target asteroid.
This trajectory has shifted the spacecraft's arrival to August 2029, a nearly six-year duration in flight against the previously considered four-year plan with an initial arrival of August 2026. The mission will then enter its 26-month long science phase collecting and observing data from the asteroid.
The mission was delayed in June 2022 as a review concluded that it would not meet its launch window after a software testbed delay.
Along with Elkins-Tanton, professors Jim Bell and David Williams at the School of Earth and Space Exploration are part of the team working on the mission at ASU; they are exclusively responsible for the multispectral imager on the mission’s spacecraft.
A critical aspect of the Psyche Mission is to study the composition of the asteroid, which provides insight into its origin and formation. Multiple hypotheses, including a theory that the asteroid is an exposed core of an protoplanet, or whether the metal-rich surface is a result of ferrovolcanism, are being investigated.
"The Psyche Mission is so important because this will give us a chance to investigate whether something like (ferrovolcanism) is even possible," Williams said. "Maybe there's silicate remnants that could have been deposited from other asteroid strikes onto the surface. Telescopic evidence suggests fracturing in it."
Data compiled from instruments on the spacecraft will help narrow down existing hypotheses.
"To figure out the origin of Psyche, we can't do that with any one instrument. It's going to take all the instruments and the gravity experiment that we're going to do to," Williams said. "There's sort of a 'decision tree': if one instrument says this, another instrument says this, another instrument says that, which sort of weaves the path through to the possible hypotheses about how it formed."
The ASU-built and designed multispectral imager will work in tandem with the gamma ray and neutron spectrometer to study the chemical composition of the surface.
The multispectral imager has a near-infrared filter; optimized to identify particular silicates and sulfide minerals that could potentially be found on Psyche's surface.
Two cameras — FM-1 and FM-2 — were built for the imager as part of the initial launch, both set to fly on the spacecraft. With newly found time from the delay, a third imager, FM-3, was built last summer.
"FM-3 is our flight spare camera, and is essentially identical to FM-1 and FM-2. As always happens when building unique and specialized instruments for space missions, you learn as you go, and each version of the instrument leverages the experience from the previous version to tweak the design and improve the performance," Jim Bell said in an email.
The third imager is currently at the Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego, undergoing major calibration testing.
The University's involvement in the mission extends to the Psyche Inspired program, which brings undergraduate student interns from any discipline or major to explore the mission through creative works, incorporating artistic approaches to learning about space exploration and the Psyche Mission.
READ MORE: How ASU fell into NASA's orbit
"As interns, we have had the honor of learning from and speaking with incredible individuals involved with the Psyche Mission, NASA JPL and other fields both scientific and creative," said Sunny Collins, a senior studying graphic information technology.
Collins created geode models of the 16 Psyche asteroid out of resin as part of a project in the program. "Being a part of Psyche Inspired, I wanted to stretch outside of my comfort zone with media that had always inspired me," she said.
The program will remain in effect even after the mission launches, as confirmed by a representative at NASA. ASU is currently accepting student interns into the 2023-2024 cohort of the program.
Over the summer, the mission will undergo crucial testing. This includes "day in the life" tests, where engineers will use testbeds to operate Psyche for five to seven days at a time by simulating commands that they will use when it is in flight.
The spacecraft is currently stored at the Astrotech Space Operations near NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It will begin final assembly in June, where the solar arrays and the imagers will be reinstalled on the spacecraft.
Once fully assembled, NASA's JPL will run a final suite of tests, after which the spacecraft will be fueled and docked to the launch vehicle. It is set to launch from Kennedy's launch complex 39A, on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket.
"We're really excited for the eventual launch," Williams said. "I've been in this industry for nearly 30 years and worked on a bunch of missions. This is the first time I'll be seeing a spacecraft take-off in person."
Correction: There is no plan to land on the asteroid, it is an orbiter not a lander. The exposed core is a protoplanet, not an exoplanet. This story was updated on April 11, 2023, at 6:55 p.m. to correct the errors.
Edited by Annie Graziano, Jasmine Kabiri and Anusha Natarajan.