SpaceX’s NASA Falcon Heavy launch debut a step closer as interplanetary payload powers up

SpaceX's first dedicated Falcon Heavy launch for NASA is a step closer after the asteroid-exploring payload was powered on for the first time. (SpaceX)

Maxar Technologies says it’s powered on NASA’s Psyche spacecraft for the first time, pushing the asteroid explorer a step closer to the space agency’s SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch debut.

Despite the many challenges and disruptions posed by the global coronavirus pandemic, Psyche principal investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton recently noted that the mission to the spacecraft’s namesake metallic asteroid (16 Psyche) remains on track for a narrow 20-day launch window beginning on August 6th, 2022.

Back in May 2020, Psyche passed a crucial Critical Design Review (CDR), in which every single spacecraft system and subsystem are analyzed to ensure they are meeting technical and programmatic expectations. Another Mission System Critical Design Review was completed in late October. Now, contractor Maxar says it has powered on the commercial satellite bus at the heart of the Psyche spacecraft for the first time as NASA and JPL teams speed towards a crucial January 2021 milestone.

The heart of NASA’s Psyche asteroid explorer was successfully powered on for the first time earlier this month. (Maxar)

Expected to cost approximately $970 million including a relatively relatively affordable $117 million SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch contract, Psyche represents a fairly unique approach to deep space exploration, leaning on commercial off-the-shelf hardware and services as much as possible. To that end, the satellite ‘bus’ – essentially the brain and structural and propulsive backbone of the spacecraft – is moderately tweaked version of Maxar’s SSL 1300 design, proven over some four decades of continuous spaceflight and more than 100 completed satellites.

Maxar’s power-on milestone keeps Psyche on track for a January 2021 “Systems Integration Review” in which all mission partners will convene to determine whether dozens of different systems are ready to be assembled into a completed spacecraft. If successful, NASA, JPL, and Maxar will kick off an ~18-month period of spacecraft assembly and testing, installing dozens of major and minor systems inside and around the satellite bus Maxar powered on earlier this month.

Psyche will mark the first use of electric Hall Effect ion thrusters beyond the Earth-Moon system and will also feature one of the first operational tests of laser-based communications in deep space, potentially allowing far more data to be returned to Earth.

Eric Ralph: I write about space, among other things.
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