NASA delays Psyche mission to asteroid due to late software delivery
NASA has announced that the Psyche mission, the space agency’s first mission designed to study a metal-rich asteroid, will not attempt a 2022 launch. The late delivery of the spacecraft’s flight software and test equipment means that NASA doesn’t have enough time to complete the necessary tests before this year’s remaining launch period that ends on October 11. The mission team needs more time than that to ensure the software will work properly in flight.
Psyche was selected in 2017 as part of NASA’s Discovery Program, which is a line of low-cost, competitive missions led by a single principal investigator. The agency is now putting together an independent evaluation team to review the way forward for the project and the Discover program as a whole.
“NASA takes cost and schedule commitments for its projects and programs very seriously. We are exploring options for the mission in the context of the Discovery Program, and a decision on a path forward will be made in the coming months,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a press release. .
The independent evaluation team will be made up of experts from government, academia and industry and will review possible next steps, including estimated costs. The team will also consider implications for the agency’s Discovery Program and planetary science portfolio.
The spacecraft’s flight, navigation, and guidance 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 it can send data and receive commands. It will also provide trajectory information to the spacecraft’s solar electric propulsion system, which begins operating 70 days after launch.
When the mission team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California began testing the system, a compatibility issue with the software testbed simulators was discovered. In May, NASA had changed the mission’s planned launch date from August 1 to no earlier than September 20 to accommodate the work that was needed. The problem has since been fixed, but there isn’t enough time to complete a full software check for its release this year.
“Flying to a distant metal-rich asteroid, using Mars as a gravitational assist along the way, requires incredible precision. We must do well. 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. The decision to delay the launch was not an easy one, but it is the right one,” JPL Director Laurie Leshin said in a press release.
If the mission had launched during the originally planned launch window (between August 1 and October 11), the spacecraft would have reached asteroid Psyche in 2026. There are possible launch windows in 2023 and 2024, but the positions relative orbitals of Earth and the asteroid during those times would mean the spacecraft would only arrive in 2029 and 2039 respectively. The exact dates for possible release periods have yet to be determined. Before launch, scientists revealed the most detailed maps of asteroid Psyche, revealing an ancient world of rock and metal.