December 1, 2022

Futuristic Solar Electric Thrusters Makes NASA’s Psyche Spacecraft Go

An illustration illustrating NASAs Psyche spacecraft, which is targeted to release to the main asteroid belt in August 2022 to investigate the metal-rich asteroid Psyche. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU
The spacecraft will depend on the large chemical rocket engines of the Falcon Heavy launch automobile to blast off the launchpad and to escape Earths gravity. However the rest of the journey, when Psyche separates from the launch car, will rely on solar electric propulsion. This kind of propulsion begins with large solar varieties that convert sunshine into electricity, providing the source of power for the spacecrafts thrusters. Theyre understood as Hall thrusters, and the Psyche spacecraft will be the very first to use them beyond the orbit of our Moon.
For propellant, Psyche will carry tanks loaded with xenon, the very same neutral gas used in car headlights and plasma TVs. The spacecrafts four thrusters will utilize electro-magnetic fields to speed up and expel charged atoms, or ions, of that xenon. As those ions are expelled, they create thrust that gently propels Psyche through space, emitting blue beams of ionized xenon.
NASAs Psyche spacecraft is photographed in July 2021 throughout the missions launch, assembly, and test operations stage at JPL. Hall thrusters will move the spacecraft to its target in the main asteroid belt. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
In fact, the thrust is so mild, it applies about the exact same quantity of pressure you d feel holding three quarters in your hand. However its sufficient to accelerate Psyche through deep space. With no climatic drag to hold it back, the spacecraft eventually will speed up to speeds of as much as 200,000 miles per hour (320,000 kilometers per hour).
Psyches Hall thrusters might operate almost nonstop for years without running out of fuel since theyre so efficient. Psyche will bring 2,030 pounds (922 kilograms) of xenon in its tanks; engineers estimate that the mission would burn through about five times that amount of propellant if it needed to use conventional chemical thrusters.
” Even in the start, when we were very first developing the objective in 2012, we were talking about solar electric propulsion as part of the strategy. Without it, we wouldnt have the Psyche mission,” said Arizona State Universitys Lindy Elkins-Tanton, who as primary private investigator leads the mission.
At NASAs Jet Propulsion Laboratory, engineers prepare to integrate 4 Hall thrusters onto the firms Psyche spacecraft. The thrusters will move Psyche to its target in the primary asteroid belt. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
A Gentle Maneuver
Mind will introduce from the historic Pad 39A at NASAs Kennedy Space. The Falcon Heavy will put the spacecraft on a trajectory to zip Mars for a gravity assist 7 months later on, in May 2023. In early 2026, the thrusters will do the fragile work of getting the spacecraft into orbit around asteroid Psyche, utilizing a bit of ballet to back into orbit around its target.
That job will be especially difficult because of how little researchers know about the asteroid, which appears as only a small dot of light in telescopes. Ground-based radar recommends its about 140 miles (226 kilometers) potato-shaped and broad, which suggests that researchers will not understand until they get there how precisely its gravity field works. As the mission conducts its science investigation over 21 months, navigation engineers will use the electrical propulsion thrusters to fly the spacecraft through a progression of orbits that gradually bring the spacecraft better and closer to Psyche.
At left, xenon plasma releases a blue glow from an electric Hall thruster similar to those that will propel NASAs Psyche spacecraft to the main asteroid belt. On the right is a comparable non-operating thruster. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASAs Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, which handles the mission, used a comparable propulsion system with the firms Deep Space 1, which released in 1998 and zipped an asteroid and a comet before the objective ended in 2001. Next came Dawn, which utilized solar electric propulsion to travel to and orbit the asteroid Vesta and then the protoplanet Ceres. The very first spacecraft ever to orbit two extraterrestrial targets, the Dawn mission lasted 11 years, ending in 2018 when it used up the last of the hydrazine propellant used to keep its orientation.
Partners in Propulsion
Maxar Technologies has been utilizing solar electric propulsion to power business communications satellites for years. For Psyche, they required to adapt the superefficient Hall thrusters to fly in deep area, and thats where JPL engineers came in. Both teams hope that Psyche, by utilizing Hall thrusters for the very first time beyond lunar orbit, will help press the limitations of solar electrical propulsion.
A solar electric propulsion Hall Effect thruster being evaluated under vacuum conditions at NASA Credit: NASA.
” Solar electric propulsion technology delivers the best mix of expense savings, effectiveness, and power and might play an important function in supporting future science objectives to Mars and beyond,” said Steven Scott, Maxars Psyche program manager.
Together with providing the thrusters, Maxars group in Palo Alto, California, was responsible for developing the spacecrafts van-size chassis, which houses the electrical system, the propulsion systems, the thermal system, and the assistance and navigation system. Psyche will move into JPLs substantial thermal vacuum chamber for testing that imitates the environment of deep area when totally assembled. By next spring, the spacecraft will deliver from JPL to Cape Canaveral for launch.
More About the Mission
ASU leads the mission. JPL is responsible for the objectives total management, system testing, engineering and combination, and mission operations. Mind is the 14th mission selected as part of NASAs Discovery Program.

Engineers at NASAs Jet Propulsion Laboratory work to incorporate Hall thrusters into the firms Psyche spacecraft in July 2021. One of the thrusters shows up on the side of the spacecraft underneath a red protective cover. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Futuristic electrical thrusters releasing a cool blue glow will assist the Psyche spacecraft through deep space to a metal-rich asteroid.
Itll be more brain than brawn that does the work when it comes time for NASAs Psyche spacecraft to power itself through deep area. Once the stuff of sci-fi, the effective and peaceful power of electrical propulsion will supply the force that propels the Psyche spacecraft all the way to the primary asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The orbiters target: a metal-rich asteroid also called Psyche.
The spacecraft will launch in August 2022 and take a trip about 1.5 billion miles (2.4 billion kilometers) over 3 and a half years to get to the asteroid, which scientists believe might be part of the core of a planetesimal, the building block of an early rocky world. Once in orbit, the objective team will utilize the payload of science instruments to examine what this unique target can reveal about the formation of rocky planets like Earth.

Engineers at NASAs Jet Propulsion Laboratory work to incorporate Hall thrusters into the firms Psyche spacecraft in July 2021. At NASAs Jet Propulsion Laboratory, engineers prepare to integrate 4 Hall thrusters onto the agencys Psyche spacecraft. In early 2026, the thrusters will do the fragile work of getting the spacecraft into orbit around asteroid Psyche, utilizing a bit of ballet to back into orbit around its target.
As the mission conducts its science examination over 21 months, navigation engineers will use the electric propulsion thrusters to fly the spacecraft through a progression of orbits that gradually bring the spacecraft more detailed and closer to Psyche.
At left, xenon plasma emits a blue glow from an electric Hall thruster similar to those that will move NASAs Psyche spacecraft to the main asteroid belt.

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