NASA delays Psyche mission to asteroid because of late software delivery

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NASA has announced that the Psyche mission, the space agency’s first mission designed to study a metal-rich asteroid, will not be attempting a 2022 launch. The late deliver of the spacecraft’s flight software and testing equipment means that NASA does not have enough time to complete the testing needed ahead of its remaining launch period this year which ends on October 11. The mission team needs more time than that to ensure that the software will function properly in flight.

Psyche was selected in 2017 as part of NASA’s Discovery Program, which is a line of low-cost competition missions led by a single principal investigator. The agency is now forming an independent assessment team to review the path forward for the project and the Discover Program as a whole.

“NASA takes the cost and schedule commitments of its projects and programs very seriously. We are exploring options for the mission in the context of the Discovery Program, and a decision on the path forward will be made in the coming months” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, in a press statement.

The independent assessment team will be made up of experts from government, academia and industry and it will review possible next steps, including estimated costs. The team will also consider the implications for the agency’s Discovery Program and planetary science portfolio.

The spacecraft’s guidance, navigation and flight software is crucial because it will control the orientation of the spacecraft as it flies through space and will be used to point the spacecraft’s antenna toward Earth so that it can send data and receive commands. It will also provide trajectory information to the spacecraft’s solar electric propulsion system, which begins operations 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’s testbed simulators. In May, NASA had shifted the mission’s targeted launch date from August 1 to no earlier than September 20 to accommodate the work that was needed. The issue has since been corrected but there is not enough time to complete a full checkout of the software for a launch this year.

“Flying to a distant metal-rich asteroid, using Mars for a gravity assist on the way there, takes incredible precision. We must get 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 assessed. The decision to delay the launch wasn’t easy, but it is the right one,” said JPL Director Laurie Leshin, in a press statement.

If the mission had launched during its originally planned launch period (between August 1 and October 11), the spacecraft would have arrived at the asteroid Psyche in 2026. There are possible launch periods in 2023 and 2024 but the relative orbital positions of Earth and asteroid during those times would mean that the spacecraft would only arrive by 2029 and 2039 respectively. The exact dates for the potential launch periods are still to be determined. Ahead of the launch, scientists have revealed the most detailed maps of the asteroid Psyche, revealing an ancient world of rock and metal.

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