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ASU-led asteroid mission ready to lift off this summer

The Psyche mission is in its final preparation stage at the Spacecraft Assembly Facility.

TEMPE, Ariz — Inside a tall white building in Pasadena sits a spacecraft ready to leave Earth forever and head somewhere we don’t know much about and on a journey where anything could happen.

The Psyche mission is in its final preparation stage at the Spacecraft Assembly Facility at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. 

Scientists and engineers, many from Arizona State University, are putting the finishing touches on a decade of work.

It’s a mission to an asteroid three AU (astronomical units) away from Earth. That’s three times the distance from the Earth to the Sun or about 450 million kilometers.

To even see the Psyche spacecraft takes work.

It’s inside a building that hasn’t changed much since 1961 and tucked away inside a cleanroom. 

Getting to the cleanroom required removing all foreign objects, dirt, dust, and fibers that could interfere with how it functions in space. Shoes are cleaned and vacuumed. Everyone dons sterile gowns over their clothes with gloves and hairnets. Equipment is wiped down with sterile alcohol rags to remove any contamination.

It's all because the spacecraft is vulnerable on Earth to all sorts of problems.

Anything could get in the circuits and moving parts and cause a catastrophic failure. And once the rocket launches with the spacecraft aboard, there’s no fixing it. 

If it breaks, the mission is over

“There's an enormous amount of redundancy,” project manager Henry Stone said. “Dual components…one starts to fail and break down, you can switch to another one.”

Stone has seen this project through from the start, as he has other spacecraft. In his words, the project is “on the goal line.” He wants to see if finished.

“It's exhilarating,” he said. “It’s like this just big relief of okay, we got it off the ground. We got everything done.”

The Psyche spacecraft is headed to an asteroid also named Psyche. Unlike other asteroids that are a mix of ice and rock, Psyche is made mostly of metal.

The hypothesis is that it may have been the core of a failed planet, but researchers don’t know for sure.

“We have no photos of it,” principal investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton said. “No fly-bys, no data that we can't get here from Earth, and the Earth data looks really weird.”

Elkins-Tanton, a researcher at Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, was the inspiration for the mission more than 10 years ago.

It started with a scientific paper that she wrote that caught the eye of some scientists at NASA.

“We read the science paper you wrote. We wonder if you'd like to propose a mission to test your idea,” she said. “And we started just talking like five of us.”

That group of five has ballooned into hundreds of people working on the Psyche mission. After the mission was selected, and then funded, Elkins-Tanton watched her moonshot idea become a sketch, then plans, then a physical spacecraft she could touch.

Psyche is almost finished with its months-long session of testing and retesting.

At the end of April, the spacecraft will be rolled through the huge doors at the end of the Spacecraft Assembly Facility, then make its way to a waiting C-5 aircraft and taken to meet its rocket. 

If all goes well, it will lift off and head into space in August for its rendezvous with Psyche.

And Elkins-Tanton will be there watching as a decade of her life takes flight.

“You try to imagine sometimes what that's going to feel like and I think it's going to be one of those moments of pure happiness,” she said.

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