While other spaceships, such as Lucy, have used solar power to drive instruments, Psyche will be one of the first NASA deep-space missions to use solar power for both onboard operations and propulsion.
Paulo lozano, director of the MIT Space Propulsion Laboratory, says Psyche could lay the foundation for solar-powered space exploration. Ultimately, this technology could help us explore multiple celestial objects over longer periods of time and potentially make human missions beyond Earth’s orbit more affordable and feasible.
“This actually opens up the opportunity to explore and commercialize space in ways we have never seen before,” says Lozano.
Since a spacecraft using solar-electric propulsion requires less fuel than a spacecraft, it has more room on board for cargo, scientific instruments and, someday, astronauts. One company, Accion systems, develops more efficient ion thrusters for Cubesats, as well as larger satellites and other spacecraft.
Solar propulsion systems are already common on satellites orbiting the Earth, but until now they have not been a powerful enough alternative to the chemical-driven engines that could be used so often in spacecraft heading into deep space. Advances in solar electric propulsion will change that.
The technology behind Psyche has passed its first major test in Dawn, an exploration spacecraft that uses solar power and ion propulsion. Dawn eventually fell silent as the dwarf planet Ceres rotated (where it would remain in orbit for decades) in 2018, three years after the alleged completion of the mission. These engines can run for years without running out of fuel, but they provide relatively low thrust compared to conventional engines.
Psyche’s engines will be able to generate three times more thrust than its predecessors, and about a year after launch, it will receive some help from Mars’ gravitational pull to change its trajectory before eventually reaching its 2026 target.