Initial images and a solar surprise

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Asteroid composite from the Psyche spacecraft

NASA’s Psyche spacecraft, launched on October 13, has been successfully conducting operations in space, including activating scientific instruments and setting a record with its electric thrusters. The spacecraft, currently millions of kilometers from Earth, captured its first images using twin cameras. Important milestones include testing various instruments such as a magnetometer and a gamma-ray spectrometer, and the use of Hall effect thrusters for deep space travel. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

The mission team has celebrated several successes since its launch from the Kennedy Space Center on October 13. The last is the operation of the spacecraft’s cameras.

POTThe Psyche spaceship is on a roll. In the eight weeks since he left Earth On October 13, the orbiter carried out one successful operation after another, powering up scientific instruments, transmitting data home and setting a deep space record with its electric thrusters. The last achievement: on Monday, December 4, the mission was turned on. Psyche‘s twin cameras and recovered the first images, a milestone called “first light.”

First images of NASA's psyche

This mosaic of a star field in the constellation Pisces was made from “first light” images acquired on December 4 by both cameras on NASA’s Psyche spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

Already 16 million miles (26 million kilometers) from the earthThe spacecraft will reach its destination: the asteroid Psyche in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter – in 2029. The team wanted to test all the scientific instruments at the beginning of the long journey to make sure they were working as intended and that there was enough time to calibrate and adjust them as necessary.

The imaging instrument, which consists of a pair of identical cameras, captured a total of 68 images, all within a star field in the constellation Pisces. The imaging team is using the data to verify proper imaging monitoring, telemetry analysis, and calibration.

First NASA Psyche Images Annotated

This is the same image as the previous one, but with the names of the stars labeled. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

“These initial images are just an introduction,” said Jim Bell of Arizona State University, leader of the Psyche imager instrument. “For the team that designed and operates this sophisticated instrument, first light is exciting. We’re starting to test the cameras with images of stars like these, and then in 2026 we’ll take test images of Mars during the spacecraft’s flyby. And finally, in 2029 we will get the most exciting images yet: of our target asteroid Psyche. We look forward to sharing all of these images with the public.”

The imager takes photographs through multiple color filters, all of which were tested in these initial observations. Using the filters, the team will use photographs in wavelengths of light visible and invisible to the human eye to help determine the composition of the metal-rich asteroid Psyche. The imaging team will also use the data to create 3D maps of the asteroid to better understand its geology, which will provide clues about Psyche’s history.

NASA’s Psyche spacecraft will use highly sensitive cameras to allow scientists to see a metal-rich asteroid that has never before been photographed up close. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

solar surprise

At the beginning of the mission, in late October, the team turned on the magnetometer, which will provide crucial data to help determine how the asteroid formed. Evidence that the asteroid once had a magnetic field would be a strong indication that the body is a partial core of a planetesimal, a building block of an early planet. The information could help us better understand how our own planet formed.

Shortly after being turned on, the magnetometer gave scientists an unexpected gift: It detected a solar flare, a common phenomenon called coronal mass ejection, where the Sun ejects large amounts of magnetized matter. plasma. The team has since seen several of these events and will continue to monitor space weather as the spacecraft travels toward the asteroid.

The good news is twofold. The data collected so far confirms that the magnetometer can accurately detect very small magnetic fields. It also confirms that the spacecraft is magnetically “quiet.” The electrical currents that power a probe of this size and complexity have the potential to generate magnetic fields that could interfere with scientific detections. Because Earth has its own powerful magnetic field, scientists got a much better measurement of the spacecraft’s magnetic field once it was in space.

The Psyche spacecraft includes many sources of unavoidable magnetic fields, which must be taken into account to measure the magnetic field signature of the metal-rich asteroid Psyche. The image illustrates the complex nature of the spacecraft’s magnetic field, modeled as the sum of more than 200 individual sources arising from various subsystems and instruments of the spacecraft. Magnetic sources include hard magnets and current loops that generate varying magnetic fields on the two solar panel wings that extend outward from the spacecraft. The magnetic field lines originating from these sources are spatially color-coded according to their intensity, with red colors indicating higher field strengths and blue colors indicating lower intensities. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In the zone

On November 8, in the midst of all the work with the scientific instruments, the team fired two of the four electric-powered thrusters, setting a record: the first use of Hall effect thrusters in deep space. Until now, they had only been used in spacecraft that reached lunar orbit. By expelling charged atoms or ions from xenon gas, ultra-efficient thrusters boost spaceship to the asteroid (a journey of 2.2 billion miles or 3.6 billion kilometers) and help it maneuver into orbit.

Less than a week later, on November 14, the demonstration of technology integrated into the spacecraft, an experiment called Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC), set his own record. DSOC achieved first light sending and receiving optical data from far beyond the Moon. The instrument beamed a near-infrared laser encoded with test data from nearly 16 million kilometers (10 million miles) away—the farthest demonstration of optical communications ever conducted.

The Psyche team has also successfully activated the gamma-ray detection component of its third scientific instrument, the gamma-ray neutron spectrometer. Next, the instrument’s neutron detection sensors will be activated the week of December 11. Together, those capabilities will help the team determine the chemical elements that make up the asteroid’s surface material.

More about the mission

Arizona State University (ASU) leads the Psyche mission. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, is responsible for overall mission management, systems engineering, integration and testing, and mission operations. Maxar Technologies in Palo Alto, California, provided the chassis for the high-power solar electric propulsion spacecraft. ASU directs operations of the imaging instrument and works collaboratively with Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego on the design, manufacturing and testing of the cameras.

JPL manages DSOC for the Technology Demonstration Missions program within NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate and the Space Navigation and Communications program within the Space Operations Mission Directorate.

Psyche is the 14th mission selected as part of NASA’s Discovery Program, managed by the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. NASA’s Launch Services Program, based at Kennedy, managed the launch service.

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