Space fans have one fewer rocket launch to look forward to this year.
NASA's Psyche mission designed to visit a metal-rich asteroid is facing an uncertain future after software testing issues forced an extended launch delay expected to last at least until July 2023, mission managers announced Friday (June 24).
NASA is convening an 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, said in a livestreamed news conference.
When asked by Space.com, Glaze hinted these options could include cancelation of the mission, on which NASA has spent $717 million to date, according to an agency statement. But no final decision has been made at this time, Glaze emphasized, as it requires an investigation for the next steps. The spacecraft is also healthy, as far as team members know; what is at issue is the lack of time available for validating the software.
"This will be a continuation/termination review that will look at that the results of the independent review and the recommendations put forward by the project," Glaze said. "That assessment will be made looking at the whole range and the implications for Psyche, the Discovery program and for the planetary portfolio." (The Discovery program encompasses mid-size planetary science missions including fellow asteroid mission Lucy.)
Psyche was supposed to launch between Sept. 20 and Oct. 11 to examine a 140-mile-wide (225 kilometers) metal-rich asteroid. Scientists are keen on uncovering whether this little world is the exposed core of a protoplanet.
Software issues had already pushed back the metal asteroid-seeking mission's debut seven weeks to September, from a previous August launch opportunity. The guidance, navigation and control (GNC) software is at the heart of the issue, as team members ran out of time to validate its performance before launch.
The testbed for Psyche's software (essentially, a replica flight system) was delayed in delivery; while now available for mission preparation, the launch timing constraint meant there was not enough time to complete validation before launching in 2022, NASA officials said.
GNC is required to control the spacecraft's position in space, and to point Psyche's antenna towards Earth to send data and receive commands, NASA said in a release about the decision. The software was also forecasted to provide trajectory information for the spacecraft's solar electric propulsion system roughly 70 days after launch.
NASA characterized the testbed as unique and complex, as it includes heritage test elements from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California along with a Maxar test environment. (Maxar supplied the spacecraft bus, which holds all the payloads and scientific instruments.)
With a looming decision about what to do next, which could have implications for other Discovery-class missions in the portfolio, factors in the Psyche go-or-no decision will include cost estimates attached to the various mission options.
The review has not launched formally yet and planning will begin shortly on the process, Glaze said. Nor is a timeline for the review's completion yet available, as Glaze said they want to make sure the team has "all the best information available." That said, the agency is hoping to "get that done as soon as we can."
Glaze emphasized that "there is no decision any way one way or the other" about Psyche's future, as that depends upon what the review finds.
"We will look at the whole breadth of information," she added. "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."
Lindy Elkins-Tanton, Psyche's mission principal investigator at the Arizona State University, said the team was working as hard as it could to make the flight date, and that the spacecraft is in good health following its testing so far. For example, Psyche did pass a series of "shake-and-bake" procedures at JPL earlier in the spring, receiving a clean bill of health at that time.
"We have no inherent deficiencies in the design or the ability of the spacecraft to accomplish the planned mission, and in fact we have no known problems with the ... software," she said. "We just haven't been able to test."
The mission delay will have a cascade effect on two ride-along small satellites that made up a mission called Janus and were supposed to have flown by two different binary asteroid systems, following a series of Earth gravity assists.
The mission team for those smallsats had already said in June, when Psyche's launch was initially delayed, that they will miss the opportunities to view the originally selected astronauts, 1991 VH and 1996 FG3, and have an alternate list of worlds to visit under consideration. The list has not been released.
NASA said Friday that the independent review on Psyche's future will be required before assessing how Janus will be delivered to space, given that options for Psyche itself are not yet finalized.
"The future implications for Janus and that project will be considered once we have a clear path forward for Psyche," Glaze said.
NASA picked Psyche for flight in January 2017, along with another Discovery-class planetary science mission called Lucy. Lucy launched in October 2021 and is on a lengthy route to visit the Trojan asteroids of Jupiter. Psyche was initially proposed to launch in 2023, but NASA decided to move the launch earlier in order to arrive at the asteroid sooner.