The large NASA spacecraft is now officially en route to a metal-rich asteroid (also named Psyche) after taking off on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket earlier today. This marks the first time a NASA science mission has used SpaceX’s larger rocket for a launch.
The Falcon Heavy lifted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at 10:19 AM EST. The Psyche spacecraft successfully separated from the upper stage of the rocket a little over an hour after lift-off, and NASA engineers established communications with it shortly before noon.
Psyche (the spacecraft) will now embark on a six-year, 2.2 billion-mile journey to Psyche (the asteroid), which sits in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Before the spacecraft reaches its target, it will conduct a technology demonstration of the Deep Space Optical Communications experiment. If successful, it would be the first time optical communications are demonstrated beyond the Earth-moon system.
The van-sized spacecraft will reach Mars in May 2026 and use that planet’s gravitational field to propel itself to the target asteroid. Once there, Psyche will spend 26 months orbiting the metal-rich asteroid, in order to study — for the first time — a space object that has a metal surface. The spacecraft will take multispectral images, map the asteroid’s surface and study its chemical and mineral composition. The spacecraft is also outfitted with other instruments, like a radio antenna and a spectrometer, to study the asteroid’s gravity field and high-energy particles.
NASA’s Launch Services Program, which essentially acts as a broker to match spacecraft with the most appropriate rockets, selected Falcon Heavy after labeling Psyche a “Category 3” mission. Per the agency’s certification requirements, a launch vehicle must have “significant flight history” in order to be eligible for these missions. NASA will be using Falcon Heavy many more times in the coming years: In 2024, the rocket is booked to launch a geostationary weather satellite and the Europa Clipper mission to one of Jupiter’s moons.
NASA awarded SpaceX a ~$131 million contract for the launch, though the agency will likely spend upwards of $1.2 billion on the mission overall.