NASA’s Psyche fires its sci-fi-worthy thrusters

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This artist’s concept shows NASA’s Psyche spacecraft heading toward the metal-rich asteroid Psyche in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The spacecraft was launched in October 2023 and will arrive at its destination in 2029. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

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This artist’s concept shows NASA’s Psyche spacecraft heading toward the metal-rich asteroid Psyche in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The spacecraft was launched in October 2023 and will arrive at its destination in 2029. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

NASA’s Psyche spacecraft has passed its six-month check with a clean bill of health, and now there’s no stopping it. Navigators fire its futuristic-looking electric thrusters, emitting a blue glow almost non-stop as the orbiter rockets further into deep space.

The spacecraft launched on October 13, 2023 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida atop a SpaceX Falcon Heavy. After leaving our atmosphere, Psyche made the most of its rocket boost and flew past the orbit of Mars.

Over the next year, the spacecraft will enter what mission planners call “full cruise” mode, when electric thrusters take over and propel the orbiter toward the asteroid belt. The thrusters work by ejecting charged atoms, or ions, of xenon, creating a brilliant blue glow that trails behind the spacecraft.

They are part of Psyche’s incredibly efficient solar-electric propulsion system, which is powered by sunlight. The thrust created by the ionized xenon is gentle, but does its job. Even in full cruise mode, the pressure exerted by the thrusters is about what you would feel if you held three quarters in your hand.


This photo shows a working electric thruster identical to the one used to power NASA’s Psyche spacecraft. The blue glow comes from the charged atoms, or ions, of xenon. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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This photo shows a working electric thruster identical to the one used to power NASA’s Psyche spacecraft. The blue glow comes from the charged atoms, or ions, of xenon. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The orbiter is now more than 300 million kilometers away and moving at a speed of 37 kilometers per second relative to Earth. That’s about 84,000 mph (135,000 km/h). Over time, with no atmospheric drag to slow him down, Psyche will accelerate to speeds of up to 125,000 mph.

The spacecraft will arrive at the metal-rich asteroid Psyche in 2029 and will make observations from orbit for about two years. The data it collects will help scientists better understand the formation of rocky planets with metal cores, including Earth. Scientists have evidence that the asteroid, which is about 175 miles (280 kilometers) wide at its widest point, may be the partial core of a planetesimal, the building block of an early planet.

Clean bill of health

The flight team used Psyche’s first 100 days in space to fully check all spacecraft systems. All technical systems are working exactly as expected, and the three scientific instruments have operated without any problems.

The magnetometer works so well that it could detect a burst of charged particles from the sun, just like the gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer. And last December, the two cameras on the imaging instrument captured their first images.


This image shows the path NASA’s Psyche spacecraft takes as it travels to the asteroid Psyche. Key milestones of the main mission are labeled, including Mars gravity assist in May 2026. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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This image shows the path NASA’s Psyche spacecraft takes as it travels to the asteroid Psyche. Key milestones of the main mission are labeled, including Mars gravity assist in May 2026. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“To date, we have powered up and checked the various devices needed to complete the mission, and we can report that they are working extremely well,” said Henry Stone, Psyche project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. who manages the mission.

“Now we’re on our way and looking forward to an upcoming short flight past Mars.”

That’s because the spacecraft’s orbit will take it back to the Red Planet in the spring of 2026. The spacecraft will disable its thrusters as it heads toward Mars, using the planet’s gravity to hurl itself outward. From there, the thrusters return to full cruise mode. Next stop: the asteroid Psyche.

In the meantime, the demonstration of Deep Space Optical Communications technology aboard the spacecraft will continue to test its mettle. The experiment already exceeded expectations when it sent test data from more than 140 million miles (226 million kilometers) away to a downlink station on Earth at a speed of 267 megabits per second in April – a bit rate comparable to broadband Internet download speeds.

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