Ars on a clean chamber tour of JPL’s asteroid-orbiting spacecraft

Zoom in / Artist chart of NASA’s Psych spacecraft, scheduled for launch in August 2022. The Psychic Mission will explore a metallic asteroid of the same name on the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

NASA / JPL-Caltech / ASU

Ars Technica has the opportunity to tour NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California this week, and a clean room on the near-completion Psych spacecraft is perfect for a sneak peek. This ambitious mission, named after the asteroid it will explore, is scheduled to be launched on the Balkan Heavy Rocket in August. Scientists hope that learning more about this extraordinary asteroid will improve our understanding of planetary formation and the early days of our solar system.

Discovered in March 1852 by the Italian astronomer Annibel de Casparis, 16 Psyche is an M-type asteroid (i.e. with a high metal content) orbiting the Sun with an unusual potato-like shape on the main asteroid belt. The long-held preferred hypothesis is that the psyche is the protruding metal center of a protoplanet (of the planets) from the earliest days of our solar system, removed by collision (or multiple collisions) with other objects in the crust and crust. In recent years, scientists have concluded that mass and density estimates are not entirely consistent with the metal residue center. In contrast, it is a complex alloy of metals and silicates.

Alternatively, the asteroid may have at one time been the mother body of a particular type of stony-iron meteorite, which broke down and rejoined as a mixture of metal and silicate. Or it could be something like the dwarf planet Ceres 1 in the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter – which may have experienced a volcanic eruption during the 16th cyclone, leaving highly concentrated metals at those volcanic centers.

Many scenes of 16 souls were filmed through a very large telescope.
Zoom in / Many scenes of 16 souls were filmed through a very large telescope.

Scientists have long suspected that metal nuclei are deeply trapped within terrestrial planets such as Earth. But those nuclei are buried beneath rock crustaceans and crustaceans beyond what researchers can find. The single metal core-like body found, Psych offers the perfect opportunity to shed light on how rocky planets may have formed in our solar system (Earth, Mercury, Venus and Mars). NASA approved the Psych mission in 2017, which wants to send a spacecraft to orbit the asteroid and collect important data about its properties.

“Our understanding of what psychology can be has not changed in the last few years,” Linda Elkins-Danton, of Arizona State University, told Ars, the lead researcher on the Psych Mission. “It must have a large metal content, but we do not really know how much. It may have been part of a small planet’s metal core from the beginning of the solar system or it may have never melted. We do not really know until we leave. “

There will be many tools in the psychic spacecraft to collect that precious scientific data. There is a multi-spectral imager capable of generating high-resolution images to tell scientists the difference between the metal and silicate (mineral) components of an asteroid. The job of mapping the asteroid’s composition and identifying all the elements falls to the gamma ray and neutron spectrometer. There is a magnetometer that measures and maps the remnants of the magnetic field. Finally, the microwave radio telecommunications system can measure the gravitational field of the asteroid and collect clues about its internal structure.

A miniature model of a psychic spacecraft.
Zoom in / A miniature model of a psychic spacecraft.

Jennifer Ollet

The chassis, built by satellite company Maxer Technologies, was delivered last April. It is about the size of a passenger van and is built mostly on commercial, off-the-shelf technology. “Once in space, the spacecraft will use an innovative method of propulsion called Hall Thrusters to reach the asteroid,” Ars senior astronaut Eric Berger wrote last year. “This is the first time a spacecraft has entered deep space using Hall Thrusters, and without this technology the Psych mission would not have taken place — certainly not less than $ 1 billion in its cost.” Here’s a little more from Berger about this innovative approach:

Chemically driven engines are ideal for getting rockets from the Earth’s surface when you need energy to break the Earth’s gravity. But chemical rocket engines are not the most fuel efficient engines in the world because they absorb momentum. And once a spacecraft goes into space, there are more fuel-efficient mechanisms to orbit it. NASA is experimenting [solar electric propulsion] Technology for a while. The space agency first tested electric propulsion technology on its Deep Space 1 mission, which launched in 1998, and then in 2007 visited the Vesta and Ceres on the asteroid belt on the Dawn mission.

These spacecraft used ion thrusters. Hall thrusters, by contrast, use a simple design with a magnetic field to control the impulse flow. These impulses were discovered in the Soviet Union and later adopted for commercial purposes by Maxer and other companies. Many large communications satellites in geostationary orbit today, such as DirectTV, use Hall Thrusters to maintain the station.

Using Hall Thruster-based technology, the mission’s scientists and engineers helped design a smaller and cheaper spacecraft. Each Hall Thruster on a bicycle produces three times more thrust and two times more power than the Ion Thrusters on the Dawn spacecraft. This will allow the spacecraft to reach the Psych asteroid, located in the main belt, in January 2026, after a 3.5-year journey.

The Psyche team tested the double solar arrays in March, attaching the rows to the body of the spacecraft and extending them long, before placing the panels until the August launch. The five-panel, cross-shaped solar panels are the largest installed in JPL, measuring 800 square feet (75 square meters). They are specially designed to work in low light conditions far away from the sun.

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