NASA wants to use the sun to exploit future deep space missions

While other spacecraft, like Lucy, uses solar energy to operate instruments, Psyche is one of NASA’s first deep-space missions to use solar energy for onboard operations and propulsion.

Paulo Lozano, director of MIT’s space propulsion laboratory, says Psyche could lay the foundation for more solar-powered space exploration. Eventually, technology will help us investigate many celestial objects over longer periods of time and may make human missions outside Earth’s orbit cheaper and more feasible.

“It really opens up the possibility of exploring and commercializing space in a way we’ve never seen before,” Lozano said.

Because a spacecraft that uses solar-electric propulsion requires less propellant than a chemically powered one, it will have more space on board for cargo, scientific instruments, and, in the future, astronauts. A company, Systems in Action, developing more efficient ion thrusters for Cubesats as well as larger satellites and other spacecraft.

Solar propulsion technology is already common in satellites orbiting the Earth, but until now it has not been a powerful enough alternative to the chemically powered engines that are routinely used by spacecraft heading into deep space. Advances in solar electric propulsion could change that.

The technology behind Psyche has its first major test at Dawn, an exploration spacecraft that uses solar power and ion thrusters. Dawn eventually fell silent while orbiting the dwarf planet Ceres (where it will remain in orbit for decades) in 2018, three years after the mission was supposed to end. These thrusters can operate for many years without running out of fuel, but they provide relatively little thrust compared to conventional propulsion.

Psyche’s thrusters will be able to generate three times more thrust than its predecessors, and about a year after launch, it will get help from Mars ’gravitational pull to change its trajectory to has not yet reached its target of 2026.

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