NASA’s most metal mission will test new, higher-power electric thrusters

A satellite company named Maxar recently delivered a passenger van-sized chunk of spacecraft to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. This chassis will serve as the backbone for a robotic spacecraft that will explore a metallic asteroid for the first time. This ambitious mission, named Psyche after the eponymous asteroid it will explore, is due to launch next summer on a Falcon Heavy rocket.

Once in space, the spacecraft will use an innovative means of propulsion, known as Hall thrusters, to reach the asteroid. This will be the first time a spacecraft has ventured into deep space using Hall thrusters, and absent this technology the Psyche mission probably wouldn’t be happening—certainly not at its cost of just less than $1 billion.

For David Oh, the large, boxy chassis represents one of those “full circle” moments in life. More than two decades ago, he worked on Hall thruster technology as a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He would go on to work for Space Systems/Loral, which first put the propulsive technology on large commercial satellites and would later be acquired by Maxar.

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