NASA’s Psyche fires up its sci-fi thrusters

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This artist’s concept depicts NASA’s Psyche spacecraft headed for the metal-rich asteroid Psyche in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The spacecraft launched in October 2023 and will arrive at its destination in 2029 Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

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This artist’s concept depicts NASA’s Psyche spacecraft headed for the metal-rich asteroid Psyche in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The spacecraft launched in October 2023 and will arrive at its destination in 2029 Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

NASA’s Psyche spacecraft has passed its six-month inspection with a clean bill of health and is now free of delays. Navigators fire up its futuristic-looking electric thrusters, which emit a blue glow almost continuously as the orbiter moves deeper into deep space.

The spacecraft blasted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida atop a SpaceX Falcon Heavy on October 13, 2023. After leaving our atmosphere, Psyche made the most of its rocket thrust and exited Mars’ orbit.

Next year, the spacecraft will be in what mission planners call “full cruise” mode, when its electric thrusters take over and propel the orbiter toward the asteroid belt. The thrusters work by ejecting charged xenon atoms or ions, emitting a brilliant blue glow that moves behind the spacecraft.

They are part of Psyche’s incredibly efficient solar electric propulsion system, which is powered by sunlight. The thrust created by the ionized xenon is gentle, but it gets the job done. Even at full cruise, the pressure exerted by the thrusters is about what you would feel if you held three quarters in your hand.


This photo captures a working electric thruster engine identical to those used to propel NASA’s Psyche spacecraft. The blue glow comes from the charged atoms or ions of xenon. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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This photo captures a working electric thruster engine identical to those used to propel NASA’s Psyche spacecraft. The blue glow comes from the charged atoms or ions of xenon. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The orbiter is now more than 190 million miles (300 million kilometers) away and traveling at 23 miles per second (37 kilometers per second) relative to Earth. That’s about 84,000 miles per hour (135,000 km/h). Over time, with no atmospheric drag to slow it down, Psyche will accelerate to speeds of up to 124,000 mph (200,000 kmph).

The spacecraft will arrive at the metal-rich asteroid Psyche in 2029 and take observations from orbit for about two years. The data it collects will help scientists better understand the formation of rocky planets with metal cores, including Earth. Scientists have evidence that the asteroid, which is about 173 miles (280 kilometers) across at its widest point, may be a partial core of a planetesimal, the building block of an early planet.

Clean condition

The flight team used Psyche’s first 100 days in space to perform a complete check of all spacecraft systems. All engineering systems are working exactly as expected and all three science instruments are running smoothly.

The magnetometer worked so well that it was able to detect an eruption of charged particles from the sun, as did the gamma-ray and neutron spectrometers. And last December, the imaging instrument’s dual cameras captured their first images.


This graphic depicts the path taken by NASA’s Psyche spacecraft as it travels to the asteroid Psyche. Key milestones of the main mission are indicated, including the Mars gravity assist in May 2026 Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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This graphic depicts the path that NASA’s Psyche spacecraft follows as it travels to the asteroid Psyche. Key milestones of the main mission are indicated, including the Mars gravity assist in May 2026 Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“Up to this point, we’ve been plugging in and testing the various pieces of equipment needed to complete the mission, and we can report that they’re working beautifully,” said Henry Stone, Psyche project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, which is managing the mission. .

“We are now on our way and look forward to the upcoming close flyby of Mars.”

That’s because the spacecraft’s trajectory will take it back to the Red Planet in the spring of 2026. The spacecraft will turn off its thrusters as it heads toward Mars, using the planet’s gravity to launch itself in a slingshot. From there, the thrusters return to full cruise mode. Next stop: the asteroid Psyche.

Meanwhile, the Deep Space Optical Communications technology demonstration aboard the spacecraft will continue to test its mettle. The experiment has already exceeded expectations when in April it transmitted test data from more than 140 million miles (226 million kilometers) away at 267 megabits per second to a downlink station on Earth – a bit rate comparable to broadband Internet download speeds.

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