Psyche receives first images of deep space

Psyche receives first images of deep space

NASA’s Psyche spacecraft has completed one successful operation after another, turning on scientific instruments, transmitting data back home, and setting a deep space record with its electric motors.

The latest achievement: On December 4, the mission switched on Psyche’s twin cameras and received the first images – an important milestone called “first light.”

The first light

Already 26 million kilometers from Earth, the spacecraft will arrive at 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 work as intended and to have enough time to calibrate and adjust them if necessary.

The thermal imager, which consists of a pair of identical cameras, took a total of 68 images, all within the star field in the constellation Pisces. The team is using this data to verify proper control, analyze telemetry, and calibrate the images.

The images of the “first light” of Psyche make up this mosaic, which shows the star field in the constellation Pisces.

“These initial images are just pulling back the curtain,” said Jim Bell of Arizona State University, Psyche project manager. – “For the team that developed and operates this sophisticated instrument, the first light is exciting. We’ll start testing the camera with images of stars like these, then in 2026 we’ll take test images of Mars during a spacecraft flyby.”

According to him, in 2029, the mission will receive the most exciting images of the asteroid Psyche, which is the goal of the flight.

The imager takes images through several color filters, each of which was tested during these initial observations. Thanks to the filters, the team will use the photos in wavelengths of light visible and invisible to the human eye to help determine the composition of the metal-rich asteroid Psyche. The visualization team will also use the data to create 3D maps of the asteroid to better understand its geology, which will provide clues to Psyche’s history.

Зображення "першого світла" Психеї складають цю мозаїку, на якій зображено зоряне поле в сузір'ї Риб. Версія мозаїки з анотаціями та назвами зображених зірок наведена внизу.Зображення "першого світла" Психеї
Images of the “first light” of Psyche make up this mosaic, which depicts a star field in the constellation Pisces. A version of the mosaic with annotations and the names of the stars depicted is shown below.

Solar surprise

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

Soon after turning on, the magnetometer gave the scientists an unexpected gift: it detected a solar eruption, a common phenomenon called a coronal mass ejection, when the Sun spews out large amounts of magnetized plasma. Since then, the team has observed several such events and will continue to monitor space weather as the spacecraft flies toward the asteroid.

The good news is twofold. The data collected so far confirm that the magnetometer can accurately detect very small magnetic fields. They also confirm that the spacecraft is magnetically “quiet”. The electric currents powering a probe of this size and complexity have the potential to generate magnetic fields that could interfere with scientific research. Because the Earth has its own powerful magnetic field, scientists have gotten much better results measuring the spacecraft’s magnetic field while it was in space.

In the zone

On November 8, while working with scientific instruments, the team launched two of the four electric thrusters, setting a record: the first ever use of Hall effect thrusters in outer space. Until now, they had only been used on spacecraft orbiting the Moon. By pushing out charged atoms or ions of xenon gas, the ultra-efficient engines will propel the spacecraft to the asteroid (3.6 billion kilometers away) and help it maneuver in orbit.

Less than a week later, on November 14, a demonstration of the technology built into the spacecraft, an experiment called Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC), set its own record. DSOC saw the light of day for the first time, sending and receiving optical data from the far reaches of space beyond the Moon. The device emitted a near-infrared laser encoded with test data from a distance of nearly 10 million miles (16 million kilometers) – the farthest-ever demonstration of optical communications.

Psyche’s team also successfully turned on the gamma-ray detection component of its third science instrument, the Gamma-ray and Neutron Spectrometer. Next week, on December 11, the neutron detection sensors will be turned on. Together, these capabilities will help the team determine the chemical elements that make up the asteroid‘s surface material.



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