Psyche asteroid explorer arrives at Kennedy Space Center for launch preps
The launch preparations at Kennedy will include loading of more than a ton of xenon gas into the Psyche spacecraft, followed by encapsulation of the probe inside SpaceX’s payload fairing before rolling out to pad 39A for integration with a Falcon Heavy launcher. “Shipping to the launch site feels like the home stretch is kind of coming, and it certainly feels that way on Psyche,” said Brian Bone, the lead engineer on Psyche’s assembly, test, and launch operations team. The xenon will fuel the spacecraft’s electric propulsion system, a set of four high-efficiency electric thrusters to guide Psyche from Earth to its namesake asteroid destination. The robotic mission will reach the asteroid Psyche in January 2026, then enter a series of orbits at different distances to map the unexplored world. The mission’s launch period extends several weeks, and is scheduled to allow the Psyche spacecraft to reach Mars in May 2023 for a flyby maneuver, using the planet’s gravity to slingshot toward the asteroid belt. The delivery of the Psyche spacecraft to the Florida launch base follows months of testing at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. With those tests complete, engineers placed the spacecraft in an environmentally controlled shipping container and drove it from JPL to March Air Reserve Base in Riverside, California, where a military flight crew loaded it into a C-17 transport plane for the cross-country journey to Florida. After touching down at the Launch and Landing Facility at Kennedy Friday afternoon, Psyche was moved to the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility, where engineers removed the spacecraft from its shipping crate earlier this week. The transport of the Psyche spacecraft to Florida was “exceptionally smooth,” Bone said in an interview with Spaceflight Now.
Psyche was assembled and tested at JPL, and Maxar Technologies, a builder of commercial communications satellites, provided the spacecraft’s chassis, propulsion system, and solar panels. One of the first tasks for the Psyche team will be testing to make the spacecraft was not damaged during shipment to Florida. “In parallel the baseline testing, we’re doing alignments and making sure that nothing shifted or moved throughout the dynamics test campaign and the transit here to KSC,” Bone said. The spacecraft processing team will also load new software on Psyche’s flight computer, and complete an end-to-end verification test with NASA’s Deep Space Network, which will track and communicate with the probe after launch. Engineers will install the spacecraft’s power-generating solar panels, then fill Psyche’s seven xenon tanks with more than 2,200 pounds (1,000 kilograms) of fuel, Bone said. The xenon gas will be loaded into the spacecraft over the course of about three weeks, beginning in early June, according to Bone. Electric thrusters can run for weeks or months at a time, while less efficient, higher-thrust rocket engines fire for seconds or minutes. There’s another benefit of electric propulsion from the perspective of the spacecraft processing team. “We can do other things on the spacecraft as we’re loading the propellant if we need to, minor things.
Teams at Kennedy will also install Psyche’s deep space transponder, part of its communications system, after it needed to be removed from the spacecraft at JPL for troubleshooting. Two small spacecraft will hitch a ride to space with Psyche. The Janus smallsats are built by Lockheed Martin and should arrive at the Kennedy Space Center in late June for integration with an adapter ring connecting Psyche with its Falcon Heavy launcher. SpaceX’s launch team, meanwhile, will connect the Falcon Heavy’s three first stage booster cores with the rocket’s upper stage. Psyche carries three scientific instruments: A pair of high-resolution color cameras for 3D images of the asteroid, a gamma ray and neutron spectrometer to measure the asteroid’s composition, and a magnetometer to measure the magnetic field of the asteroid. NASA selected Psyche as a Discovery-class interplanetary mission in 2017, alongside the Lucy asteroid explorer, which launched last year. Supply chain difficulties and the COVID-19 pandemic added pressure to Psyche’s development team to keep the mission on track for launch this year. “It just made things drag out longer, made things show up at times when they were maybe not optimal for the schedule,” Bone said.
Read full article at Spaceflight Now