The Psyche mission launched today, on its way to rendezvous with the asteroid of the same name in 2029.
Following a one-day delay due to bad weather in Florida, Psyche lifted off atop a Falcon Heavy rocket at 10:19 a.m. local time (14:19 UTC) today, October 13, 2023. It was a picture-perfect launch, receiving that word of highest praise from launch control: “Nominal.”
After a short coast in a parking orbit around Earth, the second stage fired a second time for just a few minutes to place Psyche on course for its first planetary encounter, with Mars in May 2026. At 15:22 UT, the spacecraft separated from the second stage, gently drifting into space on its own.
“We’ve just seen this beautiful wild animal released into its native habitat,” said Jim Bell on NASA’s launch broadcast. “This is where it belongs.” Bell is the lead scientist for Psyche’s camera system.
Before the mission zooms past Mars, Psyche will use xenon fuel accelerated through ion engines to widen its orbit around the Sun, taking it far past Mars’s orbit. The Mars swingby will then send the spacecraft onward to the target asteroid three years later. Final approach will begin in May 2029, with the rock just a few pixels across to Psyche’s cameras. By late July 2029, the asteroid is expected to capture Psyche into orbit, and it’ll span about 500 pixels in the main cameras.
Psyche’s cameras are based on the design of the Curiosity rover’s Mastcams. They’ll eventually do color mapping, but first they’ll serve the important function of helping the spacecraft steer its way to the asteroid. Psyche also carries a gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer based on ones that flew to Mercury on Messenger and to the Moon on Lunar Prospector, and a magnetometer with heritage from the one that flew to Mars on Insight.
Science instrument checkouts will begin about six weeks after launch. Once images start arriving on Earth, they will be posted to a public website immediately upon receipt: https://science.nasa.gov/mission/psyche/multimedia-raw-images/
Editorial note (Oct. 19, 2023): The caption of the second image was corrected to note that the person to the right is Jim Hall of NASA launch services, not Malcolm Wright.