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The Thrusters Behind NASA’s Mission to the Asteroid Psyche

The Thrusters Behind NASA’s Mission to the Asteroid Psyche

Satellite company Maxar recently delivered a spacecraft the size of a passenger van to NASA’s California Jet Propulsion Laboratory. This chassis will be the backbone of a robotic spacecraft that will explore the metal asteroid for the first time. This ambitious mission has the name of the same name Psyche asteroid will explore, launch the Falcon Heavy rocket next summer.

Once in space, the spacecraft will use an innovative propulsion path, known as Hall thrusters, to reach the asteroid. This will be the first time spacecraft he ventured into deep space using Hall propellers. Without technology, the Psyche mission probably wouldn’t have happened, it certainly wouldn’t cost less than $ 1 billion.

For David Oh, the big-box chassis represents one of those “full-circle” moments in life. More than two decades ago, Hall worked in thruster technology as a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He would continue to work on space systems / Loral, first placing propulsive technology on large commercial satellites and then acquiring Maxar.

After working on the first launches of commercial satellites powered by Hall propellers, Oh left the private sector in 2003 to join NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and has since worked on a number of missions, among others. Curiosity ra Red Planet In 2011. He now serves as the technical head of the Psyche mission.

“I’ve been working on electric propulsion for over two decades,” he said in an interview.

And now he worked the way the thriller Hall of Technology will take Oh NASA to a whole new place: Psyche. Never before has a spacecraft visited such a world, made up of about 60 percent metal. We really do no idea what it will be like.

Chemical propulsion engines are ideal for extracting rockets from the Earth’s surface when you need explosive energy to get them out of the planet’s gravitational well. But chemical rocket engines are not the most fuel-efficient machines in the world, as they improve the propellant. And once a spaceship is inserted space, fuel is more efficient to move.

One of them is solar electric propulsion, which uses solar panels to capture energy from the Sun, and at the same time ionizes and accelerates a gas (usually xenon) to generate momentum. Not a big boost. In fact, it is very clear. Each promoter of the Psyche mission achieves the same strength that two or three-quarters do in the palm of their hand. Because the fuel is very efficient, electric solar motors do not burn for a few minutes. They smoke for months, creating a constant acceleration.

NASA has been experimenting with this technology for a while. The space agency first tested electric propulsion technology in the Deep Space 1 mission launched in 1998 and later in 2007 on the Dawn mission, visiting Vesta and Ceres on an asteroid belt.

These spacecraft used ion boosters. Hall thrusters, on the other hand, use a simpler design to limit the flow of the thruster with a magnetic field. These launchers were invented in the Soviet Union and later adapted by Maxar and other companies for commercial purposes. Many of the largest geostationary orbit communications satellites today, such as those delivered by DirecTV, use Hall propellers to maintain stations.

But now, for the first time, they are being used for a deep space mission. NASA and Maxar believe the technology is ready, but it still needs to be proven in a new environment.

“It’s always a great thing when you go beyond Earth’s orbit,” said former astronaut Robert Curbeam, Maxar’s vice president. “As you move away from the Sun, you will generate less energy from the Solar Matrix. The radiation environment will be different. And there is the question of whether we can keep these pulsators pulsing for a long time.”

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