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Building the Psyche Asteroid Explorer

If all goes well (an often perilous assumption, as JWST so frequently reminds us), NASA’s Psyche mission to the intriguing asteroid of the same name will lift off in about two years. We’re now moving out of the design and planning stage into manufacturing the spacecraft hardware, this following a period of testing on the core engineering models that will deliver the spacecraft to its target in the main asteroid belt. The critical design review, a shakeout of the three science instruments and engineering subsystems, has just been passed with flying colors.

Principal investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton (Arizona State University) calls the process “one of the most intense reviews a mission goes through in its entire life cycle.” True enough, as everything from telecommunications, power and propulsion must pass the test, not to mention the flight avionics and computing systems. We’re a long way past the digital blueprint stage, having followed it up with prototypes and engineering models of the science instruments and engineering subsystems, all performed before the flight hardware could be built.

“This is planning on steroids” said Elkins-Tanton. “And it includes trying to understand down to seven or eight levels of detail exactly how everything on the spacecraft has to work together to ensure we can measure our science, gather our data and send all the data back to Earth. The complexity is mind-boggling.”

So what’s next? Assembling and testing of the full spacecraft is to begin in February of 2021, with a deadline of April 2021 for each instrument to be delivered to the main clean room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. This is going to be a fascinating mission to watch from the technology standpoint, as it will involve a demonstration of the Deep Space Optical Communications system (DSOC), intended to improve communications performance by 10 to 100 times without corresponding increases in mass, volume or power.

We’re going to want to follow DSOC closely because of its deep space implications. The plan is to deploy advanced lasers in the near infrared, and a look through NASA materials on the project shows three technologies — a low-mass spacecraft pointing assembly; a flight laser transmitter; and a pair of photon-counting detector arrays — being integrated into the DSOC system, communicating with a ground-based receiver to enable efficient communications. All this by way of exploring a future that will one day demand high-definition imagery, live video feeds and real-time data transmission for long-duration missions to deep space.

So while it’s a demonstrator, DSOC is an important one, and the Psyche mission offers a test of the system’s ability to cull faint laser signals out of a noisy background. Beyond DSOC, engineers at Maxar Technologies in Palo Alto (CA) are building the main body of the spacecraft (the Solar Electric Propulsion Chassis), attaching propulsion tanks enroute to delivery early next year to JPL, followed not long after by the solar arrays critical to power the spacecraft’s systems.

The avionics subsystem is being built at JPL, where Psyche Project Manager Henry Stone notes:

“One of the things we pride ourselves on in these deep-space missions is the reliability of the hardware. The integrated system is so sophisticated that comprehensive testing is critical. You do robustness tests, stress tests, as much testing as you can – over and above. You want to expose and correct every problem and bug now. Because after launch, you cannot go fix the hardware.”

Imagine having a job where you can talk about your involvement in multiple deep space missions, the kind of thing that makes me wish for a quick rejuvenation and a new career doing exactly that at places like JPL. And then to watch the mission fly… Psyche is to launch in August of 2022, with a Mars gravity assist in May of 2023 and arrival at Psyche in 2026.

Image: This artist’s concept, updated as of June 2020, depicts NASA’s Psyche spacecraft. Set to launch in August 2022, the Psyche mission will explore a metal-rich asteroid of the same name that lies in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The spacecraft will arrive in early 2026 and orbit the asteroid for nearly two years to investigate its composition. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/Peter Rubin.

What an interesting destination we’re dealing with. Psyche is made up mostly of iron and nickel, making it much like Earth’s core, so we may be looking at the stripped core of a differentiated planetesimal, unless the asteroid formed as a body rich in iron. If its mantle was stripped away, when did that occur, and how? Exactly how will this asteroid compare to known stony, icy objects we’ve visited? We can’t see planetary cores, but Psyche may give us a look into a planetesimal core from the era of collisions and accretion that produced the terrestrial planets.

The spacecraft will fly with a magnetometer to measure the asteroid’s magnetic field, along with a multispectral imager to collect images and data about the object’s composition and topography. Spectrometers will analyze the surface to determine its chemical abundances. The propulsion system is an electric hall thruster using xenon as the propellant. ATLO is next — Assembly, Test and Launch Operations — all beginning in February of next year. Love those NASA acronyms!

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{ 24 comments… add one }
  • Eniac July 8, 2020, 10:54

    I’m very interested in finding out more about the platinum group element content of Psyche. Platinum is probably the best candidate for profitable mining in space for sale on Earth. Still a reach, though.

    • Henry Cordova July 8, 2020, 22:25

      I suspect that if pure platinum (or even plutonium) ingots were lying on Psyche’s surface, neatly stacked in piles, it would still cost too much to go there and bring them back, profitably.

      Let’s face it, unless there is some real breakthrough in propulsion technology, asteroid mining is a pathetic entrepreneurial fantasy. Free market space groupies are going to have to come up with some other way to finance their vacations. There is no single commodity valuable enough to make it worth our while. The only thing of any real commercial value in the solar system is knowledge, data, information. And that can be shipped up or down a gravity well for practically nothing.

      Now, if you’re thinking alien life forms, or even better, alien artifacts, now we’re talking real money!

      • Eniac July 9, 2020, 12:05

        I think you are wrong. A kg of Platinum is worth $27,000. To send a kg into orbit is already cheaper than that. Returning platinum from space may be as easy as simply dropping it. It is very refractory and will survive reentry better than the nickel/iron meteorites the Earth is littered with. Mining will take substantial investment, and it is a reach, but if superior deposits exist in space then profitably exploiting them is not as farfetched as you seem to think. Think about off-shore oil platforms as a terrestrial example for capital-intensive resource exploitation.

        • Alex Tolley July 9, 2020, 19:28

          Platinum isn’t in LEO. It is out at the asteroids. It may be closer with NEAs, but that still requires reaching escape velocity to reach it, and returning and decelerating it to drop down to the Earth’s surface. Even if platinum was readily available, the amount mined per year is so small that any large asteroid mining activity to cover the huge capital costs would tank the market price. Best to use the resources in space where the cost of mining and local use competes well with the cost of launching the same mass of the resource.

          • Eniac July 16, 2020, 14:42

            That last part is certainly true, but as long as there is no space based industry there is no market. My question is if there is a path to profit selling a space resource on Earth, and platinum seems the best bet. You can’t really categorically claim that it will never be profitable. In fact, provided there are higher grade ores in space than on Earth, the answer is definitely yes if launch costs come down enough to be comparable with on-Earth freight. The question then becomes how low launch costs must be to break even, and that cannot be answered without some pretty detailed analysis.

        • Henry Cordova July 10, 2020, 0:42

          It takes energy to accelerate mass from earth’s orbit to the asteroid belt. It takes exactly the same amount of energy to come back. And we’re not even talking about all the heavy lifting that has to be done to climb out of earth’s gravity well. Remember, you’ll have to take everything you need with you, even the propellant mass you’ll need to come back home.

          Unless we can discover a means of propulsion several orders of magnitude more energetic than what we now have, there is no commodity out there worth bringing back here. Space can make a profit if we bring home information, data, the cost per bit makes it worthwhile. We’ve made huge profits from weather, earth resources, communications, and navigation satellites, but even that has benefited from the massive investment governments have made in infrastructure, research and development. Private enterprise has done nothing, all we hear is talk about space tourism, and orbital mortuary services. The current boom we have now in “private space enterprise” is still dependent primarily on the government to pay the bills and put out bids.

          Now, I do concede that once we have extensive settlements, laboratories and industries in space, it will be a lot cheaper to build and maintain them with space mined and grown resources than with supplies lifted from the earth’s surface. But those facilities will not be built because they are profitable to private ownership. They will be built by governments for scientific and military applications, at public expense.

          There are very good business reasons to go to space, and it will pay huge dividends in the long run, but there is absolutely no incentive in the short run. During the middle ages, Dutch merchants started a vast program of public works to reclaim land from the sea, projects that would not make a return on investment for decades, even centuries. But modern capitalism does not work like that. It prefers low risk and quick returns.

          There is one possible exception. If we find life in the solar system, even the simplest and most primitive form of microbial organisms, their alien biochemistry will have the potential of creating a massive and very lucrative organic chemical industry here on earth. Our current obsession with missions to find life out there is not just scientific curiosity, it will mean lots of profit to whoever gets it first. Even so, those probes that are out there looking for life, and the ones that will actually find it, are not being financed by private investment. They are relying on government to pay the up-front bills and get the ball rolling.

          That’s how it happened with the airlines and with atomic energy, and with rural electrification, and with the railroads too. Its free enterprise for me and thee, but socialism for the corporations.

          • Mike Serfas July 13, 2020, 17:44

            If I can trust Space.com’s figures, the delta v to transfer from Earth orbit to asteroid belt is about the same as to launch from Earth. https://www.space.com/15391-asteroid-mining-space-planetary-resources-infographic.html Note, however, that the method of propulsion can be infinitely gentler – even a solar sail. But the delta v is misleading because it implies we need to match velocity – we don’t. Something falling into the solar gravity well from the asteroid belt will simply be going very fast – that’s a problem for an astronaut, not so much for a case-hardened bundle of zone-refined metal. (Still, you might want to spend the propellant to match velocity, since by that time the metal may be in high demand in orbit)

            Some cleverness in the orbital mechanics should also be considered – remarkable things have been done with low-energy transfer orbits. This is especially true if precious metals are mined. If someone claims ownership of a lump of gold on a complicated, very efficient 55-year trajectory toward the Earth, that is not entirely different than having ownership of gold in a Federal Reserve vault. Indeed, the biggest hazard I see for actually doing asteroid mining is that I suspect that the major players will simply put some probes on asteroids to claim ownership, then trade that speculative property as an asset in the marketplace for centuries afterward, long after the skill and resources to potentially mine them have been lost.

          • dennis reed July 14, 2020, 19:42

            For the outbound trip use self replicating probes for the inbound trip use single use spacecraft sent to earth on a one way trip

  • charlie July 8, 2020, 12:13

    WoW!
    Psyche is massive enough that its gravitational perturbations on other asteroids can be observed, which enables a mass measurement. The values for the mass of 3.38±0.28×10−11M☉ and the density of 6.98±0.58 g/cm3 obtained from a 2002 analysis by Kuzmanoski and Kovačević, of a close encounter with asteroid (13206) 1997 GC22.[12] The new, high density estimate suggests that 16 Psyche must be composed mostly of metals. As of 2019, the best mass estimate is (2.41±0.32)×1019 kg, with a derived bulk density of 3.99±0.26 g/cm3.[1]

    It looks like a mining we will go! I’m impressed with the fact that this particular asteroid as small as it appears to be is massive enough that it can literally gravitationally perturb other asteroids that are in the asteroid belt. That wasn’t a joke anyway about mining; I’m thinking that perhaps that’s the real objective of this mission is that they are now looking at these bodies as potential sources of metals and other materials that might be useful. We may be in entering a time in which there is going to be a concerted push to go ahead and use these raw materials.

    • Alex Tolley July 8, 2020, 21:27

      The density of iron is 7.78 g/cm^3, so Psyche must be composed of some lighter elements as well. I would have hoped that it was an example of an exposed “core” after material differentiation and stripping off the lighter rock material. It just might have had accessible structures that we can create at pressures at the Earth’s core. However, the lower density estimate suggests that will not be the case. Maybe it will look just like the NiFe meteorites we find on Earth.

      If it is mainly metallic, then it would be the place to mine metals for use in space structures, especially large space habitats. Solar heating to melt the material and cast into suitable forms for transport.

      • John walker July 9, 2020, 11:41

        The 2019 downward reassessment of Psyche’s density speculated that it may have mesosiderite like characteristics rather than previously hoped for siderite. But, there may have been substantive chondritic surface impact deposition since its formation. The “exposed core” theory isn’t done yet, although how much if any of that core is “exposed” today remains to be seen.

  • Alex Tolley July 8, 2020, 12:19

    Can someone knowledgeable indicate how bespoke these probes are and how far we have come to build standard chassis with “plug and play” components that integrate via some common operating system? IOW, can we build such probes like we do desktop computers, so that build, test, and fly can be completed in little time with low cost, using a similar model to cubeSats.

    • Wojciech J July 8, 2020, 22:12

      As I understand NASA for long time has been pushing for each probe to be a new design, testing new breakthrough technologies. At least that was the idea. I think times are changing, however slowly and there is some use of standarized systems in new Mars mission, Perserverance.

    • AlexTru July 9, 2020, 2:10

      After reading this article I got exactly same thoughts .
      It will be significant step forward to transfer Solar System exploration based on some type of unification of system components , mostly requred unification of mechanical dimensions, electrical interconnection interfaces, and some type of operational system dedicated to space exploration.
      It seams to remain Sci-Fi dreams meanwhile.

    • John walker July 9, 2020, 12:07

      Good question. As a non expert I can only point to what I’ve read. The distant past has seen probes with a common bus both from NASA and the Soviets(MV2 and 3). Recently, NASA initiated a “Common Probe Study” in 2018 to investigate the possibility of common atmospheric descent probes. Not sure if looking at carrier bus/instrumentation commonality/modulatity was part of the initiative. Most probes of recent years have been ground-up engineered with minimal component commonality like MMRTG, MASPEX(Europa Clipper, ELF, Hartley 2).

  • Mike Serfas July 8, 2020, 13:08

    To solve the mystery of the asteroid belt is an immensely important scientific goal … yet I wonder if other considerations are paramount. Several years ago the U.S. moved in the direction of claiming asteroids for mining, and this is the largest known chunk of metal in the asteroid belt. The recent discovery of “lateral heterogeneity” at Earth’s core-mantle boundary ( https://science.sciencemag.org/content/368/6496/1223 ) might raise hopes for rarer deposits.

  • John walker July 8, 2020, 14:54

    I was just reading a fascinating story of Dr. Elkin Tanton’s field expeditions to the Yamal peninsula and her role in the discovery of hard evidence lending weight to the coal burning theory of the Permian Triassic mass extinction.
    https://pubs.geoscienceworld.org/gsa/geology/article/doi/10.1130/G47365.1/587319/Field-evidence-for-coal-combustion-links-the-252
    Off topic, yes. Sorry. I know the muck she described in her adventures in Russia well. Now she also leads the ultra clean science project of PSYCHE. Fantastic.

  • Brian Schmidt July 8, 2020, 16:42

    An interesting question from my perspective: when will the second mission go to Psyche?

    My guess is not in my lifetime. I’m in my 50s, and barring some groundshaking discovery there or massive technological development, this mission is my one chance to see what Psyche looks like up close. Maybe the same for a lot of others here.

    Looking forward to it!

    • Mike Serfas July 9, 2020, 9:25

      Wild guess? The second mission will arrive in 2025. With the U.S. having opened itself to the notion of “claiming” asteroids to some degree, it makes sense for a rival such as China to prepare a second mission secretively with a more powerful rocket, and land first…

  • Wojciech J July 8, 2020, 17:36

    Off topic but quite interesting, the Solar Gravity Lens Mission proposal has received additional backing from NASA and has reached phase II of study.
    While ambitious, the proposal envisions taking images of exoplanets within 100 light year radius from our Sun by fleet/swarm of telescopes around 550 AU away, based on smallsat/cubesat technology. They propose a launch in 2028 with observations taking place in 50s:

    https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/2002/2002.11871.pdf

    The study is also interesting from the point of view of interstellar probes and accelerating small nanosatellites. I think it is worth a read and possible presentation on Centauri Dreams.

    Some interesting comments here:
    https://www.nextbigfuture.com/2020/07/proposed-first-gravity-lens-mission-by-2028-that-could-spot-large-islands-on-explanets-by-2050.html
    ”SpaceX is mass-producing Starlink satellites of comparable size for less than $1 million. It could be possible to bring the costs for these types of satellites down to $100,000. Mass producing a million would cost about $100 billion. About $200 billion was spent on the international space station. We could have eighty satellites observing each of over ten thousand solar systems within 100 light-years.”

    The basic idea and proposal was debated on Centauri Dreams as far back as 2016(back then known as FOCAL mission I believe).

    https://www.centauri-dreams.org/2019/08/12/planetary-lensing-enter-the-terrascope/

    What interests me about the proposal is the out of the box idea and finally starting to use swarm/drone technology for space exploration projects. I think it has enormous potential-I would compare it to dinosaur approach(big, clunky, mass resource consuming) to swarm(big redundancy in operation, smaller cost,replaceable components).

    • Eniac July 9, 2020, 12:19

      Starlink is a great example of mass-produced satellites that Alex has also alluded to, above. I wouldn’t be surprised if SpaceX were planning upgrades for Earth and space observation, as well as deep space capable versions suitable for communications, observation and exploration, to be sent out en masse all over the solar system. With a bigger tank, those solar electric Krypton thrusters could provide quite some range.

  • ljk July 9, 2020, 10:54

    How long before there is a fabled planetoid made of solid gold? :^)

  • Robin Datta July 11, 2020, 1:12

    Brirging back rare and noble elements to earth from elsewhere with the intent to have them more easily and readily availabl for use in productive activities, thus reliving bottlenecks would be a worthy undertaking.

    Using precious metals to “get rich” does not increase the total of other resources, products or services, but reallocates them making them more accesible to the owners of the “get rich” resources and devaluing the “get rich” resources. Except where the new resources can be used to fabricate more of useful products… After the Spanish conquest in the New World, the value of gold in monetary terms fell to half in due course.

  • ljk July 20, 2020, 16:11

    A Population Of Asteroids Of Interstellar Origin Inhabits The Solar System

    Press Release – Source: São Paulo State University

    Posted July 19, 2020 at 9:01 PM

    A study conducted by scientists at São Paulo State University’s Institute of Geosciences and Exact Sciences (IGCE-UNESP) in Rio Claro, Brazil, has identified 19 asteroids of interstellar origin classified as Centaurs, outer Solar System objects that revolve around the Sun in the region between the orbits of Jupiter and Neptune.

    An article on the study titled “An interstellar origin for high-inclination Centaurs” is published in the Royal Astronomical Society’s Monthly Notices. The study was supported by São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) – FAPESP.

    “The Solar System formed 4.5 billion years ago in a stellar nursery, with its systems of planets and asteroids. The stars were close enough to each other to foster strong gravitational interactions that led to an exchange of material among the systems. Some objects now in the Solar System must therefore have formed around other stars. Until recently, however, we couldn’t distinguish between captured interstellar objects and objects that formed around the Sun. The first identification was made by us in 2018,” Maria Helena Moreira Morais , one of the two coauthors, told.

    Morais graduated in physics and applied mathematics from the University of Porto (Portugal) and earned a PhD in Solar System dynamics from the University of London (UK). She is currently a professor at IGCE-UNESP. The other coauthor is Fathi Namouni, a researcher at Côte d’Azur Observatory in Nice, France.

    The first identification to which Morais referred was the asteroid 514107 Ka’epaoka’awela, as reported by Agência FAPESP in 2018.

    The name Ka’epaoka’awela is Hawaiian and can be roughly translated to “mischievous opposite-moving companion of Jupiter”. It has occupied the path corresponding to Jupiter’s orbit for at least 4.5 billion years but revolves around the Sun in the direction opposite to that of the planets, i.e., it is a retrograde co-orbital asteroid of Jupiter.

    “When we identified it as an object that came from outside the Solar System, we didn’t know whether it was an isolated case or part of a vast population of immigrant asteroids,” Morais said. “In this latest study, we recognized 19 Centaurs of interstellar origin.”

    Similar to Ka’epaoka’awela, the Centaurs identified in the study have highly inclined orbits with respect to the orbital plane of the planets. “To investigate the origin of these objects, we built a computer simulation that works like a time machine, running their trajectories backwards by 4.5 billion years. The simulation enabled us to find out where these objects were at that time,” Morais said.

    Full article here:

    http://spaceref.com/asteroids/a-population-of-asteroids-of-interstellar-origin-inhabits-the-solar-system.html

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