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Psyche engages "sci-fi-worthy" thrusters en route to $10,000 quadrillion asteroid

NASA’s Psyche spacecraft, after successfully completing its six-month checkup, is now advancing deeper into space with its electric thrusters, which emit a characteristic blue glow. 

Launched on October 13, 2023, from Kennedy Space Center aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy, Psyche is more than 190 million miles away from Earth, traveling at a speed of approximately 84,000 mph. 

“Sci-fi-worthy” xenon thrusters

The spacecraft is in “full cruise” mode, using its solar electric propulsion system to propel itself toward the asteroid belt, specifically targeting the metal-rich asteroid Psyche, which it will reach in 2029.

The spacecraft’s thrusters, which NASA refers to as “sci-fi-worthy,” work by expelling charged xenon ions, creating a gentle yet effective thrust.

The pressure exerted by these thrusters is comparable to the weight of three quarters in your hand, demonstrating the efficiency of this propulsion system.

Over time, with no atmospheric drag to slow it down, Psyche will accelerate to speeds of up to 124,000 mph.

Reaching the asteroid Psyche 

Upon reaching its destination, Psyche will spend about two years orbiting the asteroid, gathering data to help scientists understand the formation of rocky planets with metallic cores, including Earth. 

The asteroid Psyche, which is about 173 miles across at its widest point, is believed to be the partial core of a planetesimal, providing a unique opportunity to study planetary building blocks.

Psyche’s impressive performance 

During its first 100 days in space, Psyche underwent a thorough check of all its systems. The engineering systems are functioning flawlessly, exactly as anticipated.

The trio of science instruments has been operating seamlessly, without any issues. The magnetometer has also demonstrated exceptional performance, successfully detecting an eruption of charged particles from the Sun.

Similarly, the gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer also picked up on this solar event. In a remarkable milestone, the twin cameras of the imaging instrument captured their first images this past December.

The magnetometer even detected an eruption of charged particles from the Sun. Henry Stone, Psyche project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, confirmed that the equipment is working beautifully and expressed excitement.

“Until this point, we have been powering on and checking out the various pieces of equipment needed to complete the mission, and we can report they are working beautifully,” said Stone. “Now we are on our way and looking forward to an upcoming close flyby of Mars.”

Psyche will utilize Mars‘ gravity to slingshot itself toward the asteroid, allowing its thrusters to return to full cruise mode after the maneuver.

The Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) technology aboard the spacecraft has already demonstrated impressive performance, transmitting data at a rate comparable to broadband internet from over 140 million miles away.

What is special about the Psyche asteroid?

The Psyche asteroid is a unique object in our solar system, primarily because of its composition. It’s believed to be predominantly made up of metallic iron and nickel, similar to the Earth’s core, which sets it apart from other asteroids that are usually rocky or icy. 

This has led scientists to speculate that Psyche might be the exposed core of an early planet that lost its rocky outer layers due to a series of violent collisions.

Located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, Psyche orbits the Sun and has been the subject of interest not only because of its composition but also because it offers a rare glimpse into the violent history of collisions and accretion that helped form the terrestrial planets. 

Extremely valuable asteroid 

The Psyche asteroid is considered extremely valuable primarily due to its composition. It is thought to be rich in metals like iron, nickel, and possibly even rarer metals like gold, platinum, and cobalt, which are highly valuable on Earth. 

This composition suggests that Psyche could be the exposed nickel-iron core of a protoplanet, offering a unique opportunity to study an object that might reveal the building blocks of planet formation.

Studying Psyche 

From a scientific perspective, studying Psyche could provide insights into the processes that occur in the interiors of terrestrial planets, which are normally hidden beneath miles of rock. By examining Psyche up close, scientists hope to learn more about the history and dynamics of planetary cores, including Earth’s.

Mining Psyche for metals

Economically, while the idea of mining Psyche for its metals has captured the public’s imagination, the feasibility of such an operation remains purely speculative and currently beyond our technological reach. 

However, the estimated economic value of the metals in Psyche could be in the quadrillions of dollars, highlighting the potential economic impact if space mining were to become feasible.

Psyche is a milestone in deep space exploration

As Psyche continues its journey through the solar system, it marks a significant milestone in deep space exploration. The mission’s success could provide us with unprecedented insights into the formation and evolution of rocky planets, bringing us one step closer to understanding our own world’s origins.

With its innovative propulsion system, advanced scientific instruments, and “sci-fi-worthy” technology demonstrations, NASA’s Psyche mission is a testament to human ingenuity and our relentless pursuit of knowledge.

As we eagerly await the spacecraft’s arrival at its destination, we can only imagine the discoveries that await us in the heart of an asteroid.

The Psyche mission is managed by Arizona State University, with contributions from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Maxar Technologies, and NASA’s Launch Services Program. As the 14th mission in NASA’s Discovery Program, it aims to enhance our understanding of planetary cores and the history of our solar system.


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