NASA’s Delayed Psyche Launch Presents Major Headaches for Ride-Along Mission

NASA’s Delayed Psyche Launch Presents Major Headaches for Ride-Along Mission

Artist's impression of the Janus twin probes.

Artist’s impression of the Janus twin probes.
Image: Lockheed Martin

A software glitch caused the delay of Psyche, a NASA mission to explore a metal-rich asteroid. Two small probes are included in the launch, but the postponement means they may not be able to meet their respective target asteroids.

Psyche, a probe designed to explore the unusual metal-rich asteroid 16 Psyche, is currently in preparation at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Mission engineers recently spotted an anomaly that caused a launch delay.

“A problem prevents confirmation that the software controlling the spacecraft is working as intended,” NASA said. announcement in a May 24 press release. “The team is working to identify and fix the issue. To allow more time for this work, the launch window is being updated to September 20, 2022 at the earliest, pending lineup availability.

The launch of Psyche was supposed to take place in early August, but this small delay poses a huge problem for planners of the Janus mission, a project to explore two unrelated binary asteroids. The twin probes are joining Psyche for the same SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch, but the delay means the mission won’t go as planned, as Dan Scheeres, the project’s principal investigator and University of Colorado astronomer, explained during a ‘a session. Wednesday from NASA’s Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG).

The Janus Project is one of three missions planned under NASA’s Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration (SIMPLEX-2) program, the other two being Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers (EscaPADE) and Lunar Pioneer. For the $55 million mission, the suitcase-sized Janus twin spacecraft was designed to encounter two pairs of binary asteroids, designated 1996 FG3 and 1991 VH.

Scheeres and his colleagues hope to study the complex orbital dynamics of binary asteroids and create accurate models of the two systems, which they would do using a suite of cameras mounted on the probes. By studying asteroids up close, scientists will gain a better understanding of the early solar system and gain important information that could improve planetary defense strategies against threatening near-Earth objects.

“The Janus mission, as designed and proposed to NASA, will give us information about how rubble heap asteroids evolve over time,” Scheeres told me in an email. “There are fundamental questions about how small, loosely bound rubble piles change over time, which has implications for a range of phenomena in the solar system, from the protoplanetary disk to planetary rings to planetary rings. aftermath of catastrophic disruptions.”

The Janus mission, or at least the original iteration of the mission, was to provide new data on these processes and properties. Scheeres said a modified mission could still answer those questions, but with reduced resolutions.

Under the original mission parameters, the Janus probes were to make a series of Earth flybys to encounter the asteroids in four years, but Scheeres said the delayed launch means those critical flybys are no longer possible. “Our spacecraft was designed for launch in August – this allowed us to be properly timed to reach our target asteroids,” Scheeres wrote. “The slide in September makes this moment impossible most of the time, except for a few days.” That said, there are “launch days where we will be able to fly over our original targets,” he told Gizmodo, but “a lot of the time we can’t hit them.” adding that the best-case scenario “would be to kick off the days when we can make it happen.”

Scheeres and his colleagues are in the process of locating other “scientifically interesting” asteroids that we may reach on other days of the launch period, he said. “We would just need to refocus our science goals.” A potential target, 1996 FG3, could be hit by the two Janus probes if Psyche were to be launched between October 7 and 10. according at SpaceNews. But as a carpool mission, the team has “no ability to influence launch dates or launcher targeting, and that stems from our carpool status,” Scheeres pointed out during the SBAG meeting.

Such is the fate of carpoolers, who must stand idly by and watch situations beyond their control unfold. “It’s frustrating, of course,” he told me. “However, those are the carpool rules, so it’s not like we didn’t know this could happen.” Indeed, hitchhiking atop rockets makes inexpensive space missions possible, but it is not without risks. Addressing attendees at the SBAG meeting, Scheeres said ridesharing partners should make their voices heard, adding that some considerations should be made “for small adjustments to launch dates.”

As for withdrawing the Psyche mission and finding a new launch vendor, Scheeres says that’s not on the cards. He said no known future launches can meet the needs of the Janus rideshare mission. That’s unless someone is willing to fund an independent launch, which doesn’t seem to be in the cards. Space is hard, as the saying goes, but in this case getting to space in time is the problem.

After: NASA’s latest plan to fix Trojan spacecraft’s unlocked solar array shows signs of promise.

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