NASA Announces Launch Delay for Psyche Asteroid Mission

Illustration of Psyche spacecraft with a five-panel array

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

NASA announced Friday that the Psyche asteroid mission, the agency’s first mission designed to study a metal-rich asteroid, will fail its planned 2022 launch attempt.

Due to the late delivery of the spacecraft’s flight software and test equipment, NASA will not have sufficient time to complete the tests needed ahead of this year’s remaining launch window, which ends Oct. 11. The mission team needs more time to ensure that the software will function properly during the flight.

NASA selected Psyche as part of the agencies in 2017 Discovery program, a series of inexpensive, competitive missions led by a single principal investigator. The agency is forming an independent assessment team to assess the way forward for the project and for the Discovery program.

NASA takes the costs and planning commitments of its projects and programs very seriously, said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. As part of the Discovery Program, we are exploring options for the mission and a decision on the course to follow will be made in the coming months.

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

The spacecraft’s navigation and flight software controls the spacecraft’s orientation as it flies through space and is used to point the spacecraft’s antenna toward Earth so that the spacecraft can send data and receive commands. It will also provide trajectory information to the spacecraft’s solar-electric propulsion system, which will be commissioned 70 days after launch.

When the mission team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California began testing the system, a compatibility issue was discovered with the software testbed simulators. In May, NASA the targeted launch date of the missions shifted from Aug. 1 to no earlier than Sept. 20. to accommodate the required work. The problem with the test beds has been identified and fixed; however, there isn’t enough time to fully check out the software before a launch this year.

Flying to a distant metal-rich asteroid, using Mars as a gravity aid on the way there, requires incredible precision. We have to do it right. Hundreds of people have made remarkable efforts for Psyche during this pandemic, and work will continue as the complex flight software is thoroughly tested and reviewed, said JPL director Laurie Leshin. The decision to delay the launch was not an easy one, but it was the right one.

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

Our amazing team has overcome almost all of the incredible challenges of building a spacecraft during COVID, said Psyche Principal Investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton of Arizona State University (ASU), who leads the mission. We have overcome numerous hardware and software challenges and finally stopped by this last problem. We just need a little more time and will get these licked too. The team is ready to move forward and I am so grateful for their excellence.

The total mission cost for Psyche’s life cycle, including the rocket, is $985 million. Of that, $717 million has been spent so far. The estimated cost required to support each of the available mission options is currently being calculated.

Two ride-along projects were scheduled to launch on the same SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket as Psyche, including NASA’s Janus mission to study dual binary asteroid systems, and the Deep Space Optical Communications technology demonstration to test high-data-rate integrated laser communications with the Psyche spacecraft. NASA is assessing options for both projects.

ASU leads the Psyche mission. JPL, which is managed for NASA by Caltech in Pasadena, California, is responsible for the overall management of the missions; system technology; integration and testing; and mission operations. Maxar provides the high-power solar-electric propulsion spacecraft chassis. NASA’s Launch Services Program, based at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, manages the launch.

For more information on the Psyche mission, visit:

https://www.nasa.gov/psyche

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