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NASA is now taking major steps into the completion of its Psyche asteroid spacecraft with the arrival of an important component at the US space agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California, where the spacecraft's assembly, test and launch operations is in full swing.

By 2022, Psyche will complete assembly and undergo rigorous testing and checks before it is delivered to Cape Canaveral, Florida. NASA targets a Psyche launch to the main asteroid belt in August 2022.

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NASA said the component-Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) Chassis-was manufactured by Maxar Technologies in Palo Alto, California. It has the same size of a van and comprises more than 80 percent of the hardware that will make up the spacecraft.

The huge, box-shaped component was brought in the JPL's High Bay 1 in its Spacecraft Assembly Facility. Among the features of the SEP Chassis include a 6.5-foot-wide (two-meter-wide) high-gain antenna, the frame that is set to carry scientific instruments, and bright red protective covers to shield delicate equipment.

In late March of 2021, a main component of NASA’s Psyche spacecraft was delivered to JPL, where assembly, test, and launch operations are underway.
(Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech) In late March of 2021, the main component of NASA’s Psyche spacecraft was delivered to JPL, where assembly, test, and launch operations are underway.

Psyche Mission: A "Triumph of Human Determination and Excellence"

Psyche mission team leader Lindy Elkins-Tinton from Arizona State University could not hide her excitement in a PHYS.ORG report.

"Seeing this big spacecraft chassis arrive at JPL from Maxar is among the most thrilling of the milestones we've experienced on what has already been a 10-year journey," she said.

Elkis-Tinton added that constructing such a "complex, precision piece of engineering during the year of COVID is absolutely a triumph of human determination and excellence."

NASA is set to aim Psyche into a metal-rich asteroid of the same name, located in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter orbiting the Sun. The Psyche asteroid belt, scientists believe, is composed mainly of iron and nickel, and could have been the core of an extinct planet. The spacecraft exploring the asteroid belt will offer valuable insight into how the Earth and other planets formed.

Over the next year, the Psyche team will work quickly to meet deadlines in the race to the launch date.

The SEP Chassis already carries integrated engineering hardware systems. Maxar crafted the structure, integrating the hardware necessary for the electrical, propulsion, thermal, and guidance and navigation systems. The mission will benefit from Maxar's superbly reliable and efficient electric propulsion system to push the Psyche spacecraft through deep space. It will likewise provide large, twin five-panel solar arrays that will power the spacecraft systems.

Psyche's assembly test and launch phase began on March 16, with engineers checking the JPL-supplied subsystems, the communications systems, the flight computer, and the low-power distribution systems to guarantee they can work seamlessly together. With the Chassis' arrival, they could further install the remaining hardware and testing procedures.

More Instruments Coming for Final Phase

Three more science instruments are also set to arrive at JPL in the next few months, in the final phase of the assembly, AstronomyNow reported. This includes the magnetometer, which will probe the asteroid's probable magnetic field; a multispectral imager, which captures surface images; and the spectrometer, which analyzes surface neutrons and gamma rays to discover the elements that constitute the asteroid. JPL is likewise offering a technology demonstration instrument that will test high data-capable laser communications for future NASA missions.

After the assembly is complete, the spacecraft will be transferred from the Spacecraft Assembly Facility to JPL's large thermal vacuum chamber to simulate deep space's harsh environment. Engineers will test the spacecraft's survival capacity in deep space, thrust with its electric propulsion system, ability to take scientific measurements, and communicate with Earth.

The completed Psyche will be shipped to NASA's Kennedy Space Center next spring in time for its August 2022 launch date. The spacecraft will then approach Mars by May 2023 for a gravity assist and then proceed to go into orbit in the asteroid belt, where it will stay for 21 months to get important scientific data.

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