NASA’s Psyche spacecraft has been achieving milestones since its departure from Earth on Oct. 13. In the latest success on Dec. 4, the mission activated Psyche’s twin cameras, marking the “first light” milestone. Positioned 16 million miles away from Earth, the spacecraft is en route to the asteroid Psyche in the Mars-Jupiter asteroid belt, scheduled to reach its destination in 2029.
The early activation of science instruments allows the team to ensure their proper functioning and make necessary adjustments during the lengthy journey. The imager instrument, comprising identical cameras, captured 68 images in the constellation Pisces, providing valuable data for commanding, telemetry analysis, and image calibration.
Jim Bell from Arizona State University expressed excitement, noting that these initial images are just the beginning, with more anticipated during a Mars flyby in 2026 and the ultimate goal of capturing images of the target asteroid Psyche in 2029. The imager, equipped with multiple color filters, will aid in determining the composition of the metal-rich asteroid and creating 3D maps for a comprehensive understanding of Psyche’s geology and history.
Magnetometer Unveils Solar Surprise: Psyche Spacecraft Detects Coronal Mass Ejections on Route to Asteroid.
During the early phase of the mission in late October, the team activated the magnetometer aboard the Psyche spacecraft, aiming to gather crucial data about the asteroid’s formation. The detection of a solar eruption, specifically a coronal mass ejection, shortly after activation came as an unexpected yet valuable surprise. This occurrence hints at the asteroid’s potential history as a partial core of a planetesimal.
Understanding these magnetic field dynamics contributes to unraveling the asteroid’s origins and, by extension, provides insights into our own planet’s formation. The magnetometer’s ability to precisely detect small magnetic fields is confirmed by the collected data. Additionally, reassuringly, the spacecraft itself is deemed magnetically “quiet,” minimizing potential interference with scientific measurements. As the spacecraft continues its journey to the asteroid, the team will diligently monitor space weather and further study these intriguing solar events.
In the Zone: Psyche Mission Breaks Records with Hall-Effect Thrusters and Deep Space Optical Communications Achievement.
On Nov. 8, the Psyche mission marked a historic moment by deploying two of its four electric propulsion thrusters, establishing the first-ever use of Hall-effect thrusters in deep space. These ultra-efficient thrusters, previously utilized only in spacecraft orbiting the Moon, expel charged ions of xenon gas to propel the spacecraft on its 2.2-billion-mile journey to the asteroid Psyche and assist in orbital maneuvers.
Shortly after, on Nov. 14, the spacecraft’s technology demonstration, Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC), achieved its own milestone by achieving “first light.” DSOC demonstrated optical communication by sending and receiving data encoded in a near-infrared laser from a record-breaking distance of nearly 10 million miles away – the farthest-ever demonstration of optical communications beyond the Moon.
Notably, the Psyche team successfully activated the gamma-ray detecting component of the third science instrument, the gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer. In the coming week of Dec. 11, the neutron-detecting sensors will be powered on, contributing to the mission’s goal of determining the chemical elements composing the asteroid’s surface material.