January 29, 2022


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Building NASA’s Psyche: Design Done, Now Full Speed Ahead on Hardware

11 min read

The mission to explore a metal-rich asteroid is pivoting from planning the details to building real pieces of the spacecraft puzzle.

Psyche, the NASA mission to explore a metal-rock asteroid of the same name, recently passed a crucial milestone that brings it closer to its August 2022 launch date. Now the mission is moving from planning and designing to high-gear manufacturing of the spacecraft hardware that will fly to its target in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Like all NASA missions, early work on Psyche started with drawing up digital blueprints. Then came the building of engineering models, which were tested and retested to confirm that the systems would do their job in deep space – by operating the spacecraft, taking science data and communicating it back to Earth.

And the team just sailed through a key stage in that process, the critical design review. That’s when NASA examines the designs for all of the project systems, including the three science instruments and all of the spacecraft engineering subsystems, from telecommunications, propulsion, and power to avionics and the flight computer.

“It’s one of the most intense reviews a mission goes through in its entire life cycle,” said Lindy Elkins-Tanton, who as principal investigator for Psyche leads the overall mission. “And we passed with flying colors. The challenges are not over, and we’re not at the finish line, but we’re running strong.”

Studying a Metal-Rock World

Mission scientists and engineers worked together to plan the investigations that will determine what makes up the asteroid Psyche, one of the most intriguing targets in the main asteroid belt. Scientists think that, unlike most other asteroids that are rocky or icy bodies, Psyche is largely metallic iron and nickel – similar to Earth’s core – and could be the heart of an early planet that lost its outer layers.

Since we can’t examine Earth’s core up-close, exploring the asteroid Psyche (about 140 miles, or 226 kilometers, wide) could give valuable insight into how our own planet and others formed.

To that end, the Psyche spacecraft will use a magnetometer to measure the asteroid’s magnetic field. A multispectral imager will capture images of the surface, as well as data about the composition and topography. Spectrometers will analyze the neutrons and gamma rays coming from the surface to reveal the elements that make up the asteroid itself.

The mission team made prototypes and engineering models of the science instruments and many of the spacecraft’s engineering subsystems. These models are manufactured with less expensive materials than those that will fly on the mission; that way they can be thoroughly tested before actual flight hardware is built.

“This is planning on steroids” said Elkins-Tanton, who also is managing director and co-chair of the Interplanetary Initiative at Arizona State University in Tempe. “And it includes trying to understand down to seven or eight levels of detail exactly how everything on the spacecraft has to work together to ensure we can measure our science, gather our data and send all the data back to Earth. The complexity is mind-boggling.”

An electric Hall thruster, identical to those that will be used to propel NASA’s Psyche spacecraft, undergoes testing at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The blue glow is produced by the xenon propellant, a neutral gas used in car headlights and plasma TVs. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
› Full image and caption

Building the Spacecraft

Now that Psyche is full-speed ahead on building hardware, there’s no time to lose. Assembly and testing of the full spacecraft begins in February 2021, and every instrument – including a laser technology demonstration called Deep Space Optical Communications, led by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory – has a deadline of April 2021 to be delivered to JPL’s main clean room.

The main body of the spacecraft, called the Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) Chassis, is already being built at Maxar Technologies in Palo Alto, California. While observing social-distancing requirements for COVID-19 prevention, engineers there are working to attach the propulsion tanks. In February 2021, Maxar will deliver the SEP Chassis to JPL in Southern California and then deliver the solar arrays that provide all of the power for the spacecraft systems a few months later.

Meanwhile, Psyche work is also buzzing at JPL, which manages the mission. Engineers who are essential to perform hands-on work are building and testing electronic components while following COVID-19 safety requirements. The rest of the JPL team is working remotely.

JPL provides the avionics subsystem, which includes Psyche’s flight computer – the brain of the spacecraft. With equipment spread out on racks in a clean room, engineers test each piece before integrating it with the next. Once everything is connected, they test the full system with the software, operating the electronics exactly as they will be used in flight.

“One of the things we pride ourselves on in these deep-space missions is the reliability of the hardware,” said Psyche Project Manager Henry Stone of JPL. “The integrated system is so sophisticated that comprehensive testing is critical. You do robustness tests, stress tests, as much testing as you can – over and above.

“You want to expose and correct every problem and bug now. Because after launch, you cannot go fix the hardware.”

Next up for Psyche: that February 2021 deadline to start assembly, test and launch operations, aka ATLO.

“I get goosebumps – absolutely,” Stone said. “When we get to that point, you’ve made it through a huge phase, because you know you’ve done enough prototyping and testing. You’re going to have a spacecraft that should work.”

Psyche is set to launch in August 2022, and will fly by Mars for a gravity assist in May 2023 on its way to arrival at the asteroid in early 2026.

More About the Mission

ASU leads the mission. JPL in Southern California is responsible for the mission’s overall management, system engineering, integration and test, and mission operations. Maxar Technologies is providing a high-power solar electric propulsion spacecraft chassis.

For more information about NASA’s Psyche mission go to:



News Media Contact

Gretchen McCartney
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Karin Valentine
Arizona State University School of Earth and Space Exploration, Tempe

Omar Mahmoud
Maxar Technologies, Herndon, Va.

Grey Hautaluoma / Joshua Handal
NASA Headquarters, Washington
202-358-0668 / 202-358-1501
grey.hautaluoma-1@nasa.gov / Joshua.a.handal@nasa.gov


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OWS officials stated that they have worked with the Department of State to expedite visa approval for key technical personnel, including technicians and engineers to assist with installing, testing, and certifying critical equipment manufactured overseas. OWS officials also stated that they requested that 16 DOD personnel be detailed to serve as quality control staff at two vaccine manufacturing sites until the organizations can hire the required personnel. As of February 5, 2021, the U.S. had over 26 million cumulative reported cases of COVID-19 and about 449,020 reported deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The country also continues to experience serious economic repercussions, with the unemployment rate and number of unemployed in January 2021 at nearly twice their pre-pandemic levels in February 2020. In May 2020, OWS was launched and included a goal of producing 300 million doses of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines with initial doses available by January 2021. Although FDA has authorized two vaccines for emergency use, OWS has not yet met its production goal. Such vaccines are crucial to mitigate the public health and economic impacts of the pandemic. GAO was asked to review OWS vaccine development efforts. This report examines: (1) the characteristics and status of the OWS vaccines, (2) how developmental processes have been adapted to meet OWS timelines, and (3) the challenges that companies have faced with scaling up manufacturing and the steps they are taking to address those challenges. GAO administered a questionnaire based on HHS's medical countermeasures TRL criteria to the six OWS vaccine companies to evaluate the COVID-19 vaccine development processes. GAO also collected and reviewed supporting documentation on vaccine development and conducted interviews with representatives from each of the companies on vaccine development and manufacturing. For more information, contact Karen L. Howard and Candice N. Wright at (202) 512-6888 or howardk@gao.gov or wrightc@gao.gov.
    [Read More…]
  • USDA Market Facilitation Program: Information on Payments for 2019
    In U.S GAO News
    The U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Farm Service Agency (FSA) distributed about $14.4 billion in 2019 Market Facilitation Program (MFP) payments to farming operations in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. According to USDA, these payments were intended to offset the effects of trade disruptions and tariffs targeting a variety of U.S. agricultural products. FSA distributed these payments to 643,965 farming operations. The average MFP payment per farming operation for 2019 was $22,312 but varied by county, ranging from $44 to $295,299. MFP payments for 2019 also varied by type of commodity. Three types of commodities were eligible for 2019 MFP payments: (1) nonspecialty crops (including grains and oilseeds, such as corn and soybeans); (2) specialty crops (including nuts and fruits, such as pecans and cranberries); and (3) dairy and hogs. Most of the 2019 MFP payments went to farming operations that produced nonspecialty crops. Less than 10 percent went to farming operations that produced specialty crops or dairy and hogs. USDA made approximately $519 million in additional MFP payments for 2019 compared with 2018 because of increases in payment limits—the cap on payments that members of farming operations can receive. FSA distributed these additional MFP payments to about 10,000 farming operations across 39 states. The amount of additional MFP payments that FSA distributed for 2019 varied by location. Farming operations in five states—Texas, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, and Minnesota—received almost half of all additional payments. In May 2019, USDA announced it would distribute up to $14.5 billion in direct payments to farming operations that were affected by trade disruptions, following the approximately $8.6 billion USDA announced it had distributed for 2018. USDA referred to these 2018 and 2019 payments as the MFP. In comparison with 2018, USDA changed the 2019 payment structure for the three types of commodities that were eligible for payments. For example, USDA increased the payment limit for each of these three types. GAO was asked to review the distribution of MFP payments for 2019. This report examines, among other things, MFP payments for 2019 and how they varied by location, farming operation, and type of commodity, as well as additional MFP payments for 2019 compared with 2018 that resulted from increased payment limits. To accomplish these objectives, GAO analyzed data from USDA and interviewed agency officials knowledgeable about the data. For more information, contact Steve Morris at (202) 512-3841 or morriss@gao.gov.
    [Read More…]
  • Updated – Secretary Pompeo’s Travel to India, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Indonesia, and Vietnam
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Morgan Ortagus, [Read More…]
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