While other spacecraft, like Lucy, who used solar energy to control instruments, Psyche will be among the first NASA deep-space missions to use solar energy for both onboard and propulsion operations.
Paulo Lozano, director of MIT’s space-powered lab, says Psyche could lay the groundwork for more solar-powered space exploration. Finally, technology could help us explore more celestial objects over longer periods and potentially make manned missions out of Earth orbit more accessible and feasible.
“It actually opens up the possibility of exploring and commercializing the space in a way we haven’t seen before,” says Lozano.
Because a solar-powered spacecraft requires less propellant than a chemical propellant, it has more space on board cargo, scientific instruments, and, one day, astronauts. one company, Accion Systems, is developing more efficient ion thrusters for Cubesats as well as larger satellites and other spacecraft.
Solar-powered technology is already common in satellites orbiting the Earth, but so far it has not been a powerful enough alternative to chemical-powered engines to be used frequently in deep-space spacecraft. Advances in solar electric drive will change that.
The technology behind Psyche had its first major test in Dawn, a research spacecraft that used solar energy and ion thrusters. Dawn eventually fell silent as it orbited the dwarf planet Ceres (where it will remain in orbit for decades) in 2018, three years after the mission was due to end. These thrusters can run for years without running out of fuel, but give relatively little thrust compared to conventional propulsion.
Psyche’s thrusters will be able to generate three times the thrust of their predecessors, and about a year after launch, they will receive some help from Mars ’gravitational force to change its trajectory before finally reaching its 2026 target.