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NASA commissions independent review of delayed Psyche mission to metal asteroid

a spacecraft at an asteroid
An illustration shows the probe approaching Psyche. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State Univ./Space Systems Loral/Peter Rubin)

NASA commissioned an independent review Thursday (July 14) to look in detail at the issues delaying its Psyche mission well into 2023.

The Psyche spacecraft, which had been targeting launch this fall to the metal-rich asteroid of the same name, ran into a set of software issues so complex that in June, the spacecraft's launch was pushed to at least July 2023 amid overall uncertainty about the mission's future.

"The review will study factors of workforce environment, culture, communication, schedule, and both technical and programmatic risks," NASA wrote (opens in new tab) of the 15-person board, which will be chaired by Tom Young. (Other members were not disclosed.)

Related: The greatest asteroid missions of all time!

Young's past space-related positions include director of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, president and chief operating officer of Martin Marietta, and executive vice-president of Lockheed Martin. He also is experienced with U.S. space program advisory and review activities, a Congressional biography of his states (opens in new tab).

The board is set to start its review on Tuesday (July 19) and report its results in September, NASA added.

In late June, NASA pledged to launch a "continuation-termination" independent review board to examine "all possible options for next steps, including the estimated costs for each of the various possibilities," Lori Glaze, director of NASA's planetary science division at the agency's headquarters in Washington, told reporters at the time.

An artist's concept depicts the 140-mile-wide (226-kilometer-wide) asteroid Psyche, which lies in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU)

Those options could include cancelation of the mission, on which NASA has spent $717 million (opens in new tab) so far, but Glaze and other officials emphasized a final decision would be pending based on what the review finds.

"That assessment will be made looking at the whole range and the implications for Psyche, the Discovery program and for the planetary portfolio," Glaze said in June. (The Discovery program encompasses mid-size planetary science missions, including fellow asteroid mission Lucy.)

The NASA statement this week added that the independent review will not only inform the continuation/termination review, but said the results will provide agency officials "with actionable information to reduce risk for other missions."

NASA's Psyche spacecraft is seen in early 2022 on its way to the vacuum chamber at the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Software issues were the main trouble holding up latter development of the Psyche mission, last envisioned to launch between Sept. 20 and Oct. 11 following a seven-week delay from a previous August launch opportunity. 

The spacecraft is healthy, but in recent weeks officials were unable to verify the performance of its guidance, navigation and control (GNC) software due to unforeseen troubles and complexities with the testbed (replica flight system) for Psyche. 

GNC is crucial not only to control the spacecraft's position, but also to make sure Psyche's antenna is pointed towards Earth to send data and receive commands, NASA said in a release (opens in new tab) about the decision in June.

When talking about the situation in June, Glaze emphasized NASA has made "no decision any way, one way or the other" about the future of the mission and that all information from the review would be considered.

"We'll discuss amongst the science mission directorate, and other stakeholders within NASA, to understand what all the implications are of different decisions before we make any decision going forward," she added.

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Elizabeth Howell
Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she also tackles topics like diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, three space shuttle missions in Florida, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Her latest book, Leadership Moments from NASA, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.