Falcon Heavy sends NASA probe to metal-rich asteroid Psyche

Is SpaceX psyching out the competition?

There were sighs of relief all round as NASA's Psyche mission finally lifted off late last week. However, the launch highlights more Earthly worries around launch provider competition.

The delayed Psyche mission launched to an asteroid of the same name from Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Launch occurred at 1019 EDT (1419 UTC) on October 13 atop a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. Two-way communication with the spacecraft was established at 1150 EDT with NASA's Deep Space Network. The space agency said: "Initial telemetry reports show the spacecraft is in good health."

As well as taking a close look at the metal-rich asteroid, which scientists hope will lead to new knowledge regarding the formation of rocky planets, the spacecraft is also carrying the Deep Space Optical Communications technology demonstration, aimed at upping the bandwidth compared to traditional radio frequency communications.

The 279km-wide asteroid will be "the only metal-class asteroid ever to be explored," says NASA.

Psyche will now undergo a commissioning phase as it barrels along a trajectory involving a gravity assist from Mars in 2026, ahead of an eventual arrival at the asteroid in 2029. In approximately six weeks, active check-out of the science instruments will occur, and in around three weeks, engineers will be able to try out the optical communications technology demonstration.

This will be NASA's first test beyond the Moon of high-data-rate optical, or laser, communications. Managers were, however, eager to emphasize that no Psyche mission data would be relayed using the technology.

However, it is the use of SpaceX's Falcon Heavy that marks a first for NASA. It is the first time the launcher was entrusted with what NASA calls its "most complex and highest priority missions." The agency gave it the nod in early 2023 – marking the conclusion of a two-and-a-half-year effort.

Other than the expensive Space Launch System (SLS), NASA has little choice.

SpaceX is rapidly becoming the only game in town when it comes to Western launch providers. Stalwarts, such as United Launch Alliance (ULA), are struggling to bring new rockets online in the face of planned handovers and unplanned conflicts – such as Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent final choking off of engine supplies.

ULA hopes to secure alternative engines from Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, but its Vulcan rocket remains hugely delayed. It is also not the only launch provider with issues. The Europeans are hardly faring better thanks to the grounding of the Vega-C and the schedule slips of Ariane 6.

Although other options exist – such as launchers in India and Japan - the choices available to NASA for its probes are dwindling alongside the options for small-sats, thanks to incidents such as Rocket Lab's September launch failure.

A return to flight for Rocket Lab alongside ULA notching up some Vulcan successes is needed to ensure SpaceX does not remain the only viable option for launch services, big and small. ®

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