In a historic moment, NASA’s Psyche spacecraft was launched into space aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket today. The successful launch marks the first time that a NASA science mission has utilized the larger Falcon Heavy rocket.
NASA’s Psyche mission, launched aboard SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, embarks on an ambitious journey to a metal-rich asteroid. The spacecraft will conduct technology demonstrations en route before studying the asteroid’s surface, chemical composition, and gravity field, providing unprecedented insights into these objects and expanding our understanding of the cosmos.
Psyche Sets Off on a Milestone Journey
The Falcon Heavy took off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at 10:19 AM EST, propelling the Psyche spacecraft towards its destination – a metal-rich asteroid also named Psyche. Approximately an hour after lift-off, the spacecraft separated from the upper stage of the rocket, allowing NASA engineers to establish communications with it before noon.
The Psyche spacecraft will embark on an epic six-year, 2.2 billion-mile journey to reach the Psyche asteroid, located in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Before reaching its destination, the spacecraft will demonstrate the Deep Space Optical Communications experiment, potentially paving the way for optical communications beyond the Earth-Moon system.
Exploring a Metal-Rich Asteroid
Once the van-sized spacecraft reaches Mars in May 2026, it will harness the planet’s gravitational field to propel itself towards the Psyche asteroid. Upon arrival, the Psyche spacecraft will spend 26 months orbiting the asteroid, providing invaluable insights into an object with a metal surface – a first for space exploration.
Equipped with advanced instruments, including a spectrometer and a radio antenna, Psyche will capture multispectral images, map the asteroid’s surface, and analyze its chemical and mineral composition. Additionally, the spacecraft will study the asteroid’s gravity field and investigate high-energy particles.
Falcon Heavy: The Future of NASA Missions
NASA’s Launch Services Program, responsible for pairing spacecraft with suitable rockets, selected Falcon Heavy for the Psyche mission after categorizing it as a “Category 3” endeavor. To qualify for such missions, a launch vehicle must have a significant flight history. In the coming years, Falcon Heavy is already slated to launch various missions, including a geostationary weather satellite and the Europa Clipper mission to one of Jupiter’s moons in 2024.