NASA slows down launching the very first mission to a metallic asteroid† On Friday, the space agency announced that their Psyche mission will not fly this year. The ambitious project aims to cold heart of a small planetesimal that was right in the beginning Solar system†
Since the Psyche spacecraft will not be ready for flight on October 11, the launch window for this year is closed for the mission. The next good place for a launch, in 2023 and 2024, would advance Psyche’s arrival date at the asteroid by at least three years. NASA hopes the delay will not result in too many additional costs.
NASA leaders say they will decide on Psyche’s next steps in the coming months.
What’s new – The Psyche team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California doesn’t have enough time to fully check out the spacecraft’s software before launching this year.
Psyche moves to 12 Psyche, the metallic former core of a planetesimal currently located in the Asteroid Belt. To reach this peculiar rock, the spacecraft must travel with precision and the gravitational field of Mars for a subtle course correction that shifts the mission precisely onto the correct navigation path.
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“The decision to postpone the launch was not an easy one,” says JPL Director Laurie Leshin says in NASA’s mission update statement, “but it’s the right one.”
Leshin adds that the hundreds of people who have worked on Psyche will continue to evaluate the spacecraft’s “complex” flight software, making sure it is “thoroughly tested and reviewed” before it takes to the skies.
What we don’t know – It’s still uncertain how much Psyche’s next steps will cost, and how that might affect the budget for other planetary missions.
So far, $717 million of the $985 million grant from the Psyche mission — including the missile — has been spent. “The estimated costs needed to support each of the available mission options are currently being calculated,” NASA said.
Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in the update, “NASA takes the cost and planning commitments of its projects and programs very seriously.” The space agency will figure out what to do next after taking advice from an independent team of experts “from government, academia and industry.”
What’s next – A launch in 2022 is no longer possible. If the spacecraft flew this year, it would have reached asteroid 12 Psyche by 2026.
Now the earliest arrival is likely 2029. When planning the trip, the team takes into account the “relative orbital positions” of the asteroid and Earth. These are not always the same from one year to the next. If the spacecraft’s journey started this year, it would have reached 12 Psyche by 2026. Postponing the launch until next year extends the travel time, so now instead of a four-year journey, it takes six years to get to 12 Psyche.
Why it matters – Asteroid 12 Psyche is a special one. Astronomers believe it was once the vibrant core of an early protoplanet, uncovered after bombing and now floating around Earth. Sun between a large number of better understood objects.
But the Psyche mission could change that by marking humanity’s first-ever encounter with a metallic asteroid and helping scientists gain direct data on the cores of rocky planets like Earth.
Scientists can only find out about the core of our planet indirectly because, as tempting as Jules Verne .’s Journey to the Center of the Earth can be, we can’t drill a hole and send an instrument to study it. 12 Psyche offers scientists who crave a planetary heart up close.
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