Launch of NASA’s asteroid Psyche mission postponed until late September – Spaceflight Now

Launch of NASA’s asteroid Psyche mission postponed until late September – Spaceflight Now

NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy tours the Psyche spacecraft being processed May 19 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: NASA-JPL/Wes Kuykendall

The launch of NASA’s Psyche asteroid mission, which was scheduled for August 1 on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, has been postponed until September 20 at the earliest after ground crews discovered a problem during software testing. on the spacecraft, officials said Monday.

The robotic asteroid explorer arrived at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California on April 29 aboard a US military cargo plane. Next, ground crews moved the spacecraft, packed inside a temperature-controlled shipping container, to a clean room in the Hazardous Payload Servicing Facility.

Technicians unpacked the Psyche spacecraft and moved it to a handling device for a series of hardware and software tests to ensure the probe survived the cross-country trip from California.

But a technical problem interrupted the test campaign, and will delay the launch of the Psyché mission by at least seven weeks.

“A problem prevents confirmation that the software controlling the spacecraft is working as intended,” NASA said in a written statement, responding to questions from Spaceflight Now. “The team is working to identify and correct the issue.”

Psyche’s new launch readiness date is no earlier than Sept. 20, according to Gretchen McCartney, spokeswoman for JPL, the NASA center leading the Psyche mission.

The mission has a launch period extending from August 1 through the fall, when Earth is in the correct position in the solar system to make Psyche’s interplanetary travel possible. The spacecraft heads for the asteroid Psyche – the spacecraft’s namesake – a metal-rich world in the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

NASA and members of Team Psyche did not respond to a question about exactly how long the mission’s interplanetary launch period will last this year, or when the mission’s next launch period will open. after 2022.

Other work needed to prepare for the launch of the Psyche spacecraft included the installation of its deep space transponder, which is part of the probe’s communications system, after it had to be removed from the spacecraft at JPL. for troubleshooting. Ground crews also plan to load more than a ton of xenon gas into the spacecraft’s all-electric propulsion system and then encapsulate Psyche inside its launch vehicle’s nose cone.

A Falcon Heavy rocket provided by SpaceX will lift off from Pad 39A at Kennedy and launch the Psyche spacecraft on an escape route away from Earth, allowing the probe to reach Mars in May 2023 for a flyby maneuver, using gravity from the planet to launch towards its destination of the asteroid.

The Psyche spacecraft will reach the asteroid Psyche in January 2026, then enter a series of orbits at different distances to map the uncharted world. Psyche, the asteroid, has an irregular shape, an average diameter of about 140 miles (226 kilometers) and is composed mostly of nickel and iron.

Psyche was assembled and tested at JPL. Maxar Technologies, a manufacturer of commercial communications satellites, supplied the spacecraft’s chassis, propulsion system and solar panels. JPL, with extensive experience in deep space operations, provided the flight computer, software, and parts of Psyche’s communications and power systems.

The three-and-a-half-year journey to asteroid Psyche will span 1.5 billion miles (2.4 billion kilometers). The spacecraft is designed to spend at least 21 months studying the asteroid after it arrives in 2026.

NASA selected Psyche as its cost-capped Discovery-class interplanetary mission in 2017, alongside asteroid explorer Lucy, which launched last year. The total cost of the Psyche mission is nearly $1 billion, including development, launch services, and operations.

Two small spaceships will hitchhike through space with Psyche. NASA’s twin Janus probes, each weighing just 80 pounds (36 kilograms), will launch on the same Falcon Heavy rocket as Psyche, but will head into the solar system to fly by separate asteroids.

A Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off in April 2019 with the Arabsat 6A communications satellite. Credit: Walter Scriptunas II / Spaceflight Now

The Psyche mission will mark NASA’s first use of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, a jumbo jet created by connecting three SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket boosters together. The design gives the Falcon Heavy rocket 5.1 million pounds of liftoff thrust, generated by 27 Merlin main engines.

SpaceX launched the first three Falcon Heavy missions in 2018 and 2019, but more than three years will have passed between the third and fourth Falcon Heavy rocket flights.

Several Falcon Heavy launches are potentially scheduled before the end of the year, including NASA’s Psyche mission and the ViaSat 3 Americas commercial broadband internet satellite, which is also slated for launch no earlier than September.

The US Space Force has two Falcon Heavy missions that could launch later this year with secret military satellites. One of these missions, USSF 44, had been tentatively scheduled for late June, but was postponed indefinitely. A Space Force spokesperson said last week that it could not provide an updated schedule for the USSF 44 mission.

Another Space Force launch, designated USSF 52, is also assigned a Falcon Heavy launch. It was originally scheduled to fly after USSF 44 in October, but that was before the final USSF 44 mission delay.

All delays to upcoming Falcon Heavy missions have been caused by payload issues.

Space Force’s USSF 44 mission was scheduled to launch in late 2020, and Space Force attributed the schedule delays to spacecraft delays.

Viasat’s next-generation broadband satellite, which is expected to carry internet connectivity to the Americas, has faced manufacturing, labor and supplier issues that the company has blamed in part on the COVID-19 pandemic. 19. NASA’s Psyche asteroid mission is the latest Falcon Heavy payload to encounter a launch delay.

Email the author.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.