Psyched-Out: NASA scrubs the $985 million Psyche asteroid mission

NASA announced that the Psyche asteroid mission, the agency’s first mission designed to study a metal-rich asteroid, will not make its planned 2022 launch attempt.

Due to the late delivery of the spacecraft’s flight software and testing equipment, NASA does not have sufficient time to complete the testing needed ahead of its remaining launch period this year, which ends on Oct. 11.

The mission team said it needs more time to ensure that the software will function properly in flight.

A planned to launch this month was to send the spacecraft to Psyche, an asteroid made largely of nickel-iron metal that is orbiting the sun between Mars and Jupiter, in the hope of obtaining a unique look into the violent collisions that created Earth and other terrestrial planets.

NASA had planned to launch the Psyche spacecraft for travel to the asteroid using solar-electric propulsion.

After flying by Mars in 2023 for a gravity assist, the spacecraft was to arrive at Psyche in 2026 and spend 21 months orbiting the asteroid, mapping it, and studying its properties.

“NASA takes the cost and schedule commitments of its projects and programs very seriously,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “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.”

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

The spacecraft’s guidance navigation and flight software will control the orientation of the spacecraft 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 also provides trajectory information to the spacecraft’s solar electric propulsion system, which begins operations 70 days after launch.

As 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 shifted the mission’s targeted launch date from Aug. 1 to no earlier than Sept. 20 to accommodate the work needed. The issue with the testbeds has been identified and corrected; however, 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,” said JPL Director Laurie Leshin. “The decision to delay the launch wasn’t easy, but it is the right one.”

The mission’s 2022 launch period, which ran from Aug. 1 through Oct. 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 mean the spacecraft would not arrive at the asteroid until 2029 and 2030, respectively. The exact dates of these potential launch periods are 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 conquered numerous hardware and software challenges, and we’ve been stopped in the end by this one last problem. We just need a little more time and will get this one licked too. The team is ready to move forward, and I’m so grateful for their excellence.”

Total life-cycle mission costs for Psyche, including the rocket, are $985 million. Of that, $717 million has been spent to date. The estimated costs involved to support each of the full range of available mission options are 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 twin binary asteroid systems, and the Deep Space Optical Communications technology demonstration to test high-data-rate laser communications that is integrated 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 mission’s overall management; system engineering; integration and test; and mission operations. Maxar is providing the high-power solar electric propulsion spacecraft chassis. NASA’s Launch Services Program, based at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, is managing the launch.

The NASA Psyche mission is led by principal investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton of ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and ASU’s Interplanetary Initiative.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is responsible for the mission’s overall management, system engineering, integration and test, and mission operations.

Maxar Technologies has provided the high-power solar electric propulsion spacecraft chassis.

The Psyche spacecraft is being built by Space Systems Loral (SSL), Palo Alto, California.

In order to support the new mission trajectory, SSL redesigned the solar array system from a four-panel array in a straight row on either side of the spacecraft to a more powerful five-panel x-shaped design, commonly used for missions requiring more capability.

Much like a sports car, by combining a relatively small spacecraft body with a very high-power solar array design, the Psyche spacecraft will speed to its destination at a faster pace than is typical for a larger spacecraft.

The Psyche Mission is under NASA’s Discovery Program, a series of lower-cost, highly focused robotic space missions that are exploring the solar system.

The scientific goals of the Psyche mission are to understand the building blocks of planet formation and explore firsthand a wholly new and unexplored type of world.

The mission team seeks to determine whether Psyche is the core of an early planet, how old it is, whether it formed in similar ways to Earth’s core, and what its surface is like.

The spacecraft’s instrument payload will include magnetometers, multispectral imagers, and a gamma ray and neutron spectrometer.

According to the Jet Propulsion lab, a division of NASA, this asteroid has been named 2016 CZ31.

As per the naming convention of asteroids, the four-digit number represents when the asteroid was first discovered, and the two letters afterwards represent the month and the date.

For reference, this asteroid was discovered on February 5, 2016. As per recent observations, this 400-feet or 122-meters wide asteroid has been predicted to fly past the Earth at a distance of 2.8 kilometers.

While this may seem like a large distance, in astronomical terms, it is a minuscule number.

But luckily, at the moment it appears that the asteroid will make a safe passage across the Earth. NASA: An asteroid, almost double the size of the Qutub Minar, to approach the EarthAccording to NASA Small-Body Database, the last time this asteroid came close to the earth was in 2015, and it will not come this close till 2028. The asteroid is part of the asteroid belt situated between Mars and Jupiter. At its aphelion, it goes as far as the orbit of Jupiter and during its perihelion, it comes as close as the orbit of Venus, meaning it crosses 4 planets to complete one revolution.

For the asteroid enthusiasts, this is a unique opportunity to watch this asteroid, as it will not come this close to the Earth till 2110. Do note however, that you will need a powerful telescope to see this asteroid clearly. While at the moment, it appears that the chances for an asteroid strike is minimal, things can change at a moment’s notice. That is why the Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) closely monitors all NEO asteroids for any deviation in its path that can make it a threat for Earth.s”,

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