NASA announces launch delay for asteroid Psyche mission

Illustration of the Psyche spaceship with a five-panel lattice

Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State Univ./Space Systems Loral/Peter Rubin

NASA announced on Friday that the asteroid Psyche mission, the agency’s first mission designed to study a metal-rich asteroid, will not make its planned launch attempt in 2022.

Due to late delivery of flight software and spacecraft test equipment, NASA does not have enough time to complete necessary testing before its remaining launch window this year, which ends Oct. 11. . The mission team needs more time to ensure that the software will work properly in flight.

NASA selected Psyche in 2017 as part of the agencies Discovery Program, a range of low-cost competitive missions led by a single Principal Investigator. The agency is forming an independent assessment team to examine the way forward for the project and for the discovery program.

NASA takes cost and schedule commitments for its projects and programs very seriously, said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. We are exploring options for the mission as part of the discovery program, and a decision on the way forward will be made in the coming months.

The independent assessment team, usually made up of experts from government, academia and industry, will review possible options for next steps, including estimated costs. Implications for the agency’s discovery program and planetary science portfolio will also be considered.

The spacecraft guidance flight and navigation software will control the orientation of the spacecraft as it flies through space and is used to point the spacecraft’s antenna towards Earth so that the spacecraft can send data and receive commands. It also provides trajectory information to the spacecraft’s solar electric propulsion system, which begins operating 70 days after launch.

As NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory mission team in Southern California began testing the system, a compatibility issue was discovered with the software testbed simulators. In May, NASA postponed the targeted launch date of the missions from August 1 to September 20 at the earliest to take into account the necessary work. The issue with the benchmarks has been identified and fixed; however, there is not enough time to do a full software check for a launch this year.

Flying to a distant metal-rich asteroid, using Mars for gravitational assistance along the way, requires incredible precision. We have to do it right. Hundreds of people have put remarkable effort into Psyche during this pandemic, and the work will continue as the complex flight software is thoroughly tested and evaluated, JPL Director Laurie Leshin said. The decision to delay the launch wasn’t easy, but it’s the right one.

The 2022 mission launch period, which ran from August 1 to October 11, would have seen the spacecraft arrive at asteroid Psyche in 2026. There are possible launch periods in 2023 and 2024, but the The relative orbital positions of Psyche and Earth mean the spacecraft wouldn’t arrive at the asteroid until 2029 and 2030, respectively. The exact dates of these potential launch periods are yet to be determined.

Our amazing team overcame nearly every incredible challenge of building a spacecraft during COVID, said Psyche principal investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton, of Arizona State University (ASU), who is leading the mission. We overcame many hardware and software challenges, and we were finally stopped by this latest issue. We just need a little more time and this one will be licked too. The team is ready to move forward, and I’m so thankful for their excellence.

The total lifecycle mission cost of Psyche, including the rocket, is $985 million. Of this amount, $717 million has been spent to date. The estimated costs involved in supporting each of the available mission options are being calculated.

Two overlapping projects were to be launched on the same SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket as Psyche, including NASA’s Janus mission to study twin binary asteroid systems and the Deep Space Optical Communications Technology Demonstration to test laser communications at broadband which is integrated with the Psyche space probe. NASA is evaluating options for both projects.

ASU leads the Psyche mission. JPL, which is managed for NASA by Caltech in Pasadena, Calif., is responsible for overall mission management; system engineering; integration and testing; and missionary operations. Maxar is supplying the chassis for the high-power solar electric propulsion spacecraft. NASA’s Launch Services Program, based at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, is managing the launch.

To learn more about the Psyche mission, visit:


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