Skip to main content

NASA spacecraft prepares to visit the metal asteroid Psyche

Engineers and technicians prepare to move the chassis of NASA’s Psyche spacecraft from its shipping container to a dolly inside JPL’s Spacecraft Assembly Facility just after the chassis was delivered by Maxar Technologies in late March of 2021.
Engineers and technicians prepare to move the chassis of NASA’s Psyche spacecraft from its shipping container to a dolly inside JPL’s Spacecraft Assembly Facility just after the chassis was delivered by Maxar Technologies in late March of 2021. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Out in the asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars lurks a strange beast: An asteroid made almost completely of metal. Asteroid Psyche is 140 miles in diameter and is composed of primarily iron and nickel, and the richness of its metal has led to it being dubbed the “$10,000 quadrillion asteroid.” NASA is planning to visit the asteroid soon, but not for mining purposes — rather, the aim is to learn about the formation of planets in the early solar system.

For this mission, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has just taken delivery of the Psyche spacecraft, which will be launched on its mission to investigate the asteroid in 2022.

The chassis of the spacecraft, delivered by the company Maxar Technologies, has already been packed with most of the hardware required for the mission. Now, the engineers at JPL will perform the final assembly of the craft before moving onto testing and launch preparations.

“Seeing this big spacecraft chassis arrive at JPL from Maxar is among the most thrilling of the milestones we’ve experienced on what has already been a 10-year journey,” said Arizona State University’s Lindy Elkins-Tanton, principal investigator of the Psyche mission, in a statement. “Building this complex, precision piece of engineering during the year of COVID is absolutely a triumph of human determination and excellence.”

With the launch scheduled for August next year, the team is working on adding the flight computer, communications system, and the low-power distribution system to the craft. They will also be performing tests as they install the final hardware, along with adding the mission’s three science instruments which will arrive over the next few months.

“It’s exciting watching it all come together, and it’s the part of the project life cycle that I love the most,” said Psyche Project Manager Henry Stone of JPL. “But it’s a really intense phase as well. It’s intricate choreography, and if one activity runs into a problem, it can impact the whole process. Staying on schedule at this phase of the mission is absolutely critical.”

Following the launch next year, Psyche is set to fly past Mars twice for a gravity assist before arriving at the asteroid in 2026.

Editors' Recommendations

Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
NASA conducts ‘moonwalks’ in the Arizona desert for Artemis lunar mission
NASA astronauts training in Arizona.

NASA astronauts Kate Rubins and Andre Douglas push a tool cart loaded with lunar tools through the San Francisco Volcanic Field north of Flagstaff, Arizona, as they practice moonwalking operations for Artemis III. NASA/Josh Valcarcel

Being an astronaut may sound glamorous, but it isn’t all rocket launches and floating around the International Space Station. The vast majority of the time is spent in training with your feet planted on terra firma.

Read more
NASA’s Orion spacecraft has ‘critical issues’ with its heat shield, report finds
The Orion crew module for NASA’s Artemis II mission.

The Orion crew module for NASA’s Artemis II mission. NASA/Kim Shiflett

NASA is intending to use its new Orion capsule to send astronauts to the moon under its Artemis program, but a new report finds that issues with the capsule's heat shield could be a risk to crew safety. The report from NASA's inspector general was released this week and details issues with the heat shield, which lost some material during the first flight of Orion during the Artemis I mission in 2022.

Read more
NASA selects 9 companies to work on low-cost Mars projects
This mosaic is made up of more than 100 images captured by NASA’s Viking 1 orbiter, which operated around Mars from 1976 to 1980. The scar across the center of the planet is the vast Valles Marineris canyon system.

NASA is expanding its plans for Mars, looking at not only a big, high-budget, long-term project to bring back a sample from Mars but also smaller, lower-cost missions to enable exploration of the red planet. The agency recently announced it has selected nine private companies that will perform a total of 12 studies into small-scale projects for enabling Mars science.

The companies include big names in aerospace like Lockheed Martin and United Launch Services, but also smaller companies like Redwire Space and Astrobotic, which recently landed on the surface of the moon. Each project will get a 12-week study to be completed this summer, with NASA looking at the results to see if it will incorporate any of the ideas into its future Mars exploration plans.

Read more