NASA halts Psyche mission to unexplored metal world

Washington: NASA has cancelled its planned 2022 launch attempt of the Psyche asteroid mission — the agency’s first mission designed to study a metal-rich asteroid.

The halt is “due to the late delivery of the spacecraft’s flight software and testing equipment”, which hindered the agency’s plan to complete the testing needed ahead of its remaining launch period this year, which ends on October 11.

The mission team needs more time to ensure that the software will function properly in flight, NASA said in a statement.

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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 August 1 to September 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, in the statement.

“The decision to delay the launch wasn’t easy, but it is the right one,” Leshin added.

The mission’s 2022 launch period, which ran from August 1 through 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 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, NASA said.

“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,” Elkins-Tanton said.

NASA selected Psyche in 2017 as part of the agency’s Discovery Programme — a line of low-cost, competitive missions led by a single principal investigator.

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, NASA said.

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