NASA postpones its Psyche asteroid mission


Illustration of Psyche spacecraft with a five-panel array

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

NASA’s Psyche asteroid mission — the agency’s first mission designed to study a metal-rich asteroid — will be delayed at least until next year, agency says announced† Due to the late delivery of aircraft flight software and test equipment, NASA will not be able to fully test the Pysche spacecraft before this year’s October 11 launch deadline.

The Psyche spacecraft would make a 280 million mile journey — using Mars for gravity assistance — to its eponymous asteroid as part of NASA’s Discovery program, a series of high quality focused missions to be completed at low cost. The goal of the mission remains to collect information about the asteroid Psyche. Due to a violent collision during the formation of the Milky Way, Psyche may contain exposed nuclear material. The mission would provide NASA with information about the interiors of terrestrial planets, a layer usually hidden under layers of mantle and crust.

Operated for NASA by Caltech in Pasadena, the Jet Propulsion Lab is responsible for the overall management of the Psyche mission – systems engineering, integration and testing, and mission operations. When the JPL team began testing Psyche’s system, compatibility issues with the software’s testbed simulators were identified. While issues with the testbed simulators have been resolved, a full launch software checkout is ultimately no longer feasible within the 2022 launch timeline.

The ultimate fate of the Psyche journey depends on an independent review team. The mission’s original launch period, from August 1 to October 11, would have enabled the spacecraft to reach the asteroid Psyche in 2026. If the independent assessment team moves forward with the Psyche mission, there are possible launch periods in both 2023 and 2024 – but the relative orbital positions of the asteroid and the Earth’s launch site would lead to the mission arriving at the asteroid in 2029 and 2030, respectively. .

The independent assessment team will also consider the estimated costs for the mission. The lifecycle mission cost for the Pysche mission totals $985 million, of which $717 million has been spent to date.

The journey will be led by a team from Arizona State University, led by principal investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton, and the launch will be managed by NASA’s Launch Services Program, based at Kennedy Space Center.

“Our amazing team has overcome almost all of the incredible challenges of building a spacecraft during COVID,” said Elkins-Tanton. “We overcame numerous hardware and software challenges, and finally we stopped because of this last problem. We just need a little more time and will get this licked too. The team is ready to move forward, and I am so grateful for their excellence.”

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