Image credits: Aubrey Gemignani/NASA/Getty Images
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NASA’s large spacecraft is now officially on its way to a metal-rich asteroid (also called Psyche) after lifting off on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket earlier today. This is the first time a NASA science mission has used SpaceX’s larger rocket for launch.
The Falcon Heavy rocket lifted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at 10:19 a.m. EDT. The Psyche spacecraft successfully separated from the rocket’s upper stage just over an hour after liftoff, and NASA engineers established communications with it shortly before noon.
Psyche (the spacecraft) will now embark on a six-year, 2.2 billion-mile journey to Psyche (the asteroid), which is located in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Before the spacecraft reaches its target, it will conduct a technical demonstration of a deep-space optical communications experiment. If successful, this will be the first time optical communications have been demonstrated outside the Earth-Moon system.
The truck-sized spacecraft will arrive at Mars in May 2026 and will use that planet’s gravitational field to propel itself to the target asteroid. Once there, Psyche will spend 26 months orbiting the metal-rich asteroid, in order to study – for the first time – a space object with a metallic surface. The spacecraft will take multi-spectral images, map the asteroid’s surface and study its chemical and mineral composition. The spacecraft is also equipped with other instruments, such as a radio antenna and a spectrometer, to study the asteroid’s gravitational field and high-energy particles.
NASA’s Launch Services Program, which essentially acts as an intermediary to match spacecraft with the most suitable rockets, selected the Falcon Heavy after classifying Psyche as a “Category 3” mission. for every Agency certification requirements, a launch vehicle must have a “significant flight record” to be eligible for these missions. NASA will use Falcon Heavy several times in the coming years: In 2024, the rocket is booked to launch a geostationary weather satellite and the Europe Clipper mission to one of Jupiter’s moons.
NASA has awarded SpaceX a roughly $131 million contract for the launch, though the agency will likely spend upwards of $1.2 billion on the mission overall.
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