A billion-dollar mission to put an innovative probe into orbit — around a metal-rich asteroid that resembles the core of an early planet — will be delayed until May 10 at the earliest due to problems with test equipment and the time it takes to complete software tests suspended next summer. NASA announced this on Friday.
Depending on the results of an independent review, budget implications and other factors, the Discovery-class cost-capped Psyche mission could be cancelled.
“NASA takes the cost and time commitments of its projects and programs very seriously,” said NASA chief of science Thomas Zurbuchen tweeted. “We are reviewing options for the Psyche mission as part of the Discovery program and a decision on where to go next will be made in the coming months.”
The Psyche mission targets a unique metal-rich asteroid that resembles the exposed core of an early planet. NASA says the Psyche mission offers a valuable opportunity to study one of the building blocks of the early solar system.
NASA originally planned to launch the Psyche mission on August 1 — the opening of a planetary launch window defined by Earth’s position in its orbit around the Sun and the position of the target asteroid Psyche, which orbits between Mars and Jupiter.
But in May, mission managers were forced to delay the launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket to no earlier than September 20 due to compatibility issues with a “testbed” simulator that mimics the operation of the actual spacecraft.
Assembled with components provided by Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Maxar Technologies, which provided the spacecraft’s chassis, electric thrusters and other key elements, the simulator is required in part to run the spacecraft’s complex guidance, navigation and control software, or GN&C to verify.
The simulator is now working properly, but the software itself, developed in-house at JPL, was delivered later than planned, too late for engineers to thoroughly test it with the now-working simulator before the launch window closes on October 11th.
“We have no inherent flaws in the design or in the spacecraft’s ability to perform the intended mission,” Lindy Elkins-Tanton, the lead investigator at Arizona State University, told reporters. “Indeed, we have no known issues with the GN&C software. We just couldn’t test them.
“So today we have a nice, functional spaceship. It’s built and ready. But…we just didn’t have enough time to review and validate the functionality of the GN&C software and error protection and fix any issues that we would then have found during these tests.”
Lori Glaze, director of planetary science at NASA Headquarters, said the agency will conduct an independent review to determine the root cause of the testbed issues and software development issues and to evaluate plans for launch during the 2023 and 2024 windows.
NASA managers will evaluate the additional costs of the delay, considering the review board’s findings and recommendations from project officials before deciding whether to proceed or cancel the project.
“This will be a review of continuation and termination, addressing the findings of the independent review and the project’s recommendations,” Glaze said. “And that assessment is being made taking into account the full spectrum and implications for Psyche, the Discovery program, and the planetary portfolio.”
The shutdown will also delay tests of high-speed laser communications equipment aboard Psyche and two NASA “smallsats,” which are traveling with Falcon Heavy for independent missions that will see them fly past two other asteroids.
In a press release announcing the launch delay, NASA said, “The total cost of the Psyche lifecycle mission, including the rocket, is $985 million. Of that, $717 million has been spent to date. The range of available mission options is currently being calculated.”
If launched in 2022, the spacecraft would have reached Psyche in 2026. Launches in 2023 or 2024 would result in arrivals in 2029 or 2030, respectively. The 2023 window opens next July.
Whenever it lifts off, the spacecraft launches on a powerful Falcon Heavy rocket and performs a speed-boosting, gravity-assisted flyby of Mars to put it on course for Psyche.
The guidance, navigation and control software is critical to the success of the mission, helping the spacecraft’s flight computer to know its precise location, Earth’s position, trajectory and orientation.
“The software for this system needs to be tested really thoroughly to ensure the spacecraft can successfully reach Psyche,” said JPL director Laurie Leshin. “The software has been delivered, but the problem is the time it takes to complete testing and validation.
“We had some challenges getting a very complex test environment for guidance, navigation and control to work effectively. That too is now fixed… But we don’t think we have the time to complete this essential software testing and validation to make the 2022 launch period.”
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