Cruise mode on: NASA’s Psyche probe fires up engines from the future

NASA said it has turned on the futuristic electric thrusters on the Psyche spacecraft, which is now gently gliding toward its target, a metal-rich asteroid beyond Mars.

The mission to reach the asteroid Psyche, which is orbiting the Sun between Mars and Jupiter, began six months ago when the probe was launched on a conventional SpaceX rocket.

On the way, the space agency used the time to test laser-based deep space communications and shot a laser back at the Earth from around 19 million miles out, transmitting a cat video.

Now, NASA says that Psyche has passed its six-month checkup with a clean bill of health: “Navigators are firing its futuristic-looking electric thrusters, which emit a blue glow, nearly nonstop as the orbiter zips farther into deep space.”

The thrusters work by expelling charged atoms, or ions, of xenon, emitting a brilliant blue glow that trails behind the spacecraft. They are part of Psyche’s solar electric propulsion system, which is powered by sunlight.

The spacecraft has now coasted beyond Mars's orbit and should arrive at the asteroid in 2029. From there, it will make observations from orbit for about two years.

“The data it collects will help scientists better understand the formation of rocky planets with metallic cores, including Earth,” said NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in a press release.

According to the agency, scientists have evidence that the asteroid, which is about 173 miles across at its widest point, might be the partial core of a planetesimal, the building block of an early planet.

Scientists also say that the probe's instruments have been operating without a hitch – in fact, the magnetometer is working so well that it detected an eruption of charged particles from the Sun. In December, the probe’s cameras also captured their first images.

The Deep Space Optical Communications technology will be further tested, although the experiment already surpassed expectations in April when test data was transmitted from over 140 million miles away at a rate of 267 megabits per second to a downlink station on Earth. That’s a rate comparable to broadband internet download speeds.

NASA believes that the ability to send complex scientific information, high-definition imagery, and video from deep space will support the next giant leap in science – sending humans to Mars.