NASA suspends Psyche, a mission to a metal-rich asteroid

NASA suspends Psyche, a mission to a metal-rich asteroid

Computer software delays have pushed back the launch of a NASA spacecraft to explore what appears to be a metallic asteroid that could be the core of a protoplanet that was destroyed in a giant collision early in the solar system.

Now, the mission will not take off at all this year, NASA announced on Friday.

The completed spacecraft, named Psyche after the asteroid it is to visit in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter, is at Kennedy Space Center in Florida and was scheduled to launch from there on August 1 aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. However, the key navigation software to guide and control the spacecraft’s movements in space was several months behind schedule.

Additionally, the test setup, which sends signals to the spacecraft’s computer to believe it’s already in space, didn’t work properly when engineers tried to fuse together components of the spacecraft. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, which manages the mission, and Maxar, the company that built the Psyche spacecraft.

The test setup is now working, mission officials said, and they are not aware of any issues with the software. But the debugging process will take weeks or even months more to complete.

“We just ran out of time on this one,” Arizona State University’s Lindy Elkins-Tanton, the mission’s lead investigator, said Friday at a news conference.

Last month, NASA announced that the launch attempt would be pushed back to September 20 at the earliest, rather than August 1. In order to successfully encounter the asteroid when conditions would be best for studying it, the mission would have had to launch by October 11.

“We looked at so many, many options,” said Laurie Leshin, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, “and even with a very aggressive fit, we didn’t feel confident enough to achieve that, that we would be able to achieve that window with a mission we were confident to fly.

NASA is forming an independent review board to investigate what went wrong and suggest what should be done next. NASA officials said it was too early to know how much the delay would add to the $985 million price tag, which includes the launch of Falcon Heavy. The review committee could even recommend the cancellation of the mission.

From radar observations, the asteroid Psyche appears ellipsoid in shape, about as wide as Massachusetts. It is also much denser than most asteroids.

Psyche is also very shiny, adding to the suspicions that it is made of metal.

The mission was originally scheduled to launch in 2023, but development has gone well enough to move the launch date by a year. The revised trajectory would have arrived earlier, in 2026 instead of 2030.

Now, the Psyche mission team is again eyeing launches in 2023 and 2024, and the spacecraft won’t reach the asteroid until 2029 or 2030.

The failure not only delays Psyche, but also the Janus mission, two small identical spacecraft that must follow the launch before leaving to explore two pairs of binary asteroids. The August-to-September delay had already clouded plans to meet the original targets. Now this mission will have to search for other asteroids to visit.

Another NASA mission to Kennedy Space Center reported better news on Friday. In preparation for the first launch of the Space Launch System, the massive rocket that is to return astronauts to the Moon, NASA engineers conducted rocket practice countdowns on the launch pad, including loading liquid propellants.

The fourth dress rehearsal attempt, which ended on Monday, counted to 29 seconds. NASA had hoped the practice would count down to about 9 seconds, just before the engines ignited for an actual launch. But a persistent leak from the fuel line connector prevented that.

Still, NASA officials have decided they now have enough data to prepare the rocket for launch, a mission that will send a capsule, without astronauts on board, on a trip around the moon. That could still happen in late August, officials said, but it was too early to set a more specific launch date.

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