NASA Glenn Tests Thruster Bound for Metal World
Jet Propulsion Laboratory
September 28, 2017
As NASA looks to explore deeper into our solar system, one of the key
areas of interest is studying worlds that can help researchers better
understand our solar system and the universe around us. One of the next
destinations in this knowledge-gathering campaign is a rare world called
Psyche, located in the asteroid belt.
Psyche is different from millions of other asteroids because it appears
to have an exposed nickel-iron surface. Researchers at Arizona State University,
Tempe, in partnership with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena,
California, believe the asteroid could actually be the leftover core of
an early planet. And, since we can't directly explore any planet's core,
including our own, Psyche offers a rare look into the violent history
of our solar system.
"Psyche is a unique body because it is, by far, the largest metal asteroid
out there; it's about the size of Massachusetts," said David Oh, the mission's
lead project systems engineer at JPL. "By exploring Psyche, we'll learn
about the formation of the planets, how planetary cores are formed and,
just as important, we'll be exploring a new type of world. We've looked
at worlds made of rock, ice and of gas, but we've never had an opportunity
to look at a metal world, so this is brand new exploration in the classic
style of NASA."
But getting to Psyche won't be easy. It requires a cutting-edge propulsion
system with exceptional performance, which is also safe, reliable and
cost-effective. That's why the mission team has turned to NASA Glenn Research
Center in Cleveland, which has been advancing solar electric propulsion
(SEP) for decades.
SEP thrusters use inert gases, like xenon, which are then energized by
the electric power generated from onboard solar arrays to provide gentle,
"For deep space missions, the type and amount of fuel required to propel
a spacecraft is an important factor for mission planners," said Carol
Tolbert, project manager for Psyche thruster testing at NASA Glenn. "A
SEP system, like the one used for this mission, operates more efficiently
than a conventional chemical propulsion system, which would be impractical
for this type of mission."
The reduced fuel mass allows the mission to enter orbit around Psyche
and provides additional space for all of the mission's scientific payload.
Psyche's payload includes a multispectral imager, magnetometer, and gamma-ray
spectrometer. These instruments will help the science team better understand
the asteroid's origin, composition and history.
Additional benefits of SEP are flexibility and robustness in the flight
plan, which allow the spacecraft to arrive at Psyche much faster and more
efficiently than it could using conventional propulsion.
For this mission, the spacecraft, which will be built jointly by JPL and
Space Systems Loral (SSL), will use the SPT-140 Hall effect thruster.
Because Psyche is three times farther away from the Sun than Earth, flying
there required a unique test of the low-power operation of the thruster
in the very low pressures that will be encountered in space.
The mission team called upon NASA Glenn, and its space power and propulsion
expertise, to put the mission's thruster through its paces at the center's
Electric Propulsion Laboratory.
"This mission will be the first to use a Hall effect thruster system beyond
lunar orbit, so the tests here at Glenn, which had never been conducted
before, were needed to ensure the thruster could perform and operate as
expected in the deep space environment," said Tolbert.
The facility at NASA Glenn has been a premier destination for electric
propulsion and power system testing for over 40 years and features a number
of space environment chambers, which simulate the vacuum and temperatures
"This was very important to the mission because we want to test-like-we-fly
and fly-like-we-test," said Oh. "Glenn has a world-class facility that
allowed us to go to very low pressures to simulate the environment the
spacecraft will operate in and better understand how our thrusters will
perform around Psyche.
"At first glance, the results confirm our predictions regarding how the
thruster will perform, and it looks like everything is working as expected.
But, we will continue to refine our models by doing more analysis."
As the team works toward an anticipated August 2022 launch, they will
use the data collected at NASA Glenn to update their thruster modeling
and incorporate it into mission trajectories.
The scientific goals of the Psyche mission are to understand the building
blocks of planet formation and explore firsthand a wholly new and unexplored
type of world. The mission team seeks to determine whether Psyche is the
core of an early planet, how old it is, whether it formed in similar ways
to Earth's core, and what its surface is like. For more information about
NASA's Psyche mission, visit:
The Psyche Mission is being completed under NASA's Science Mission Directorate's
Discovery Program, a series of lower-cost, highly focused robotic space
missions that are exploring the solar system.
News Media Contact
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
Glenn Research Center
Laurie Cantillo / Dwayne Brown
NASA Headquarters, Washington