Mission to the remnants of the lost planet gets a new flight plan

NASA has prepared a new flight plan for the Psyche mission, the goal of which will be the metal asteroid Psyche. According to one hypothesis, it is a fragment of the core of an exoplanet that has died at the beginning of the existence of the Solar System.

Consequences of the postponement of the Psyche mission

Initially, the launch of Psyche was supposed to take place in August 2022. It was planned that the spacecraft would reach its goal in early 2026. But in the end, NASA had to postpone the launch for more than a year. The reason was the unavailability of the ground simulator of the spacecraft. It is required for working out various technological operations, testing software and checking the response of probe systems to commands.

The asteroid Psyche in the artist’s image. Source: NASA

The postponement of the launch of Psyche launched a kind of “circles on the water” that affected many other NASA projects. For example, it left the Janus mission out of work — a pair of identical probes that were supposed to go into space as a passing cargo and fly over a pair of binary asteroids. Currently, the devices are in stock, while specialists are trying to find a new rocket and target for them.

The Venusian VERITAS mission also came under influence. Due to the unavailability of Psyche, the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) that built the device was checked by an independent commission. Based on the results of its work, a report was published describing quite serious institutional problems of the institution. Their solution will require the allocation of additional staff and funds. In this situation, JPL decided to donate VERITAS, postponing the implementation of the mission for several years.

New flight plan to Psyche

The new Psyche flight plan looks like this. The ballistic window for launching the spacecraft will be open from October 5 to October 25, 2023. It will go into space with the help of a Falcon Heavy rocket. In 2026, the spacecraft will perform a gravitational maneuver in the vicinity of Mars. This will allow it to reach Psyche in August 2029 — 3.5 years later than the original flight plan suggested.

The Psyche spacecraft in the artist’s image. Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

Over the next 26 months, Psyche will study the asteroid, collecting data on the chemical composition of its surface and internal structure. They will allow scientists to answer the question whether Psyche is really a fragment of the core of a dead protoplanet. Another task of the mission will be to test an experimental optical communication system capable of providing a much higher data transfer rate than traditional radio communication.

Experts also revised the order of maneuvering Psyche in the vicinity of Psyche. The fact is that the metal asteroid rotates lying on its side, which creates difficulties for mapping its surface. And since Psyche will arrive at its destination later than planned, the lighting conditions will be different.

Initially, the engineers planned that the spacecraft would enter a remote orbit around Psyche, after which it would gradually approach the asteroid. The new flight plan assumes a much more complex set of maneuvers, during which Psyche will approach, then move away from Psyche. This will allow to photograph all the areas of the Psyche surface that interest scientists and perform the necessary measurements.

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