This week NASA is slated to launch its Psyche asteroid mission on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The spacecraft will visit Psyche, which orbits the Sun between Mars and Jupiter, to learn how Earth and other rocky planets formed. It is the first mission to an asteroid with substantial amounts of metal, as previous missions have explored asteroids made mostly of rock or ice.
The mission will also host NASA’s Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) experiment, which will test the ability of lasers to transmit data at higher rates than traditional radio communications beyond the Moon. During the first two years of Psyche’s journey to its namesake asteroid, DSOC will test high-bandwidth optical communications to Earth. The experiment will not be relaying Psyche mission data.
The near-infrared transceiver’s 22-centimeter aperture telescope is mounted on an isolation-and-pointing assembly that stabilizes the optics and isolates it from spacecraft vibrations.
The data sent back by the DSOC transceiver on Psyche will be collected by the 200-inch (5.1-meter) Hale Telescope at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory in San Diego County, California, using a sensitive superconducting nanowire photon-counting receiver to demonstrate high-rate data transfer.
Signals sent back to the spacecraft will be emitted by a high-power near-infrared laser transmitter at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Table Mountain facility near Wrightwood, California.
The key objectives of the experiment are to demonstrate:
- that flight laser transceiver and ground systems are able to lock onto each other’s laser signals during DSOC’s calibration and commissioning phase.
- that optical transmissions are feasible at a distance of 1 astronomical unit (equal to the distance from the sun to the Earth ~ 150 million km)
- that the system can operate for a duration of 2 years.