The game on the most metal of asteroid missions is back in the Ars Technica menu

By | June 5, 2023

Artist illustration of NASA's Psyche spacecraft, now ready for launch in October 2023. The Psyche mission will explore a metal-rich asteroid of the same name located in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
Zoom in / Artist illustration of NASA’s Psyche spacecraft, now ready for launch in October 2023. The Psyche mission will explore a metal-rich asteroid of the same name located in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

A year after NASA announced an indefinite delay of a long-awaited mission to visit a metal-rich asteroid, the agency said on Monday that the Psyche spacecraft was back on track. The Psyche mission is now scheduled to launch in four months on a Falcon Heavy rocket, and everyone involved with the project is feeling good about that date.

“We believe Psyche is on track for an October 2023 launch,” said Thomas Young, who chaired an independent review panel that NASA convened last summer after the mission was delayed.

If the mission launches this fall, the spacecraft will reach the asteroid Psyche in August 2029. There, it will enter orbit for 26 months to gain insights into planetary formation, understand the interior of terrestrial planets like Earth, and survey a world which is made largely of metal. The mission is also of interest to the nascent asteroid mining community, who seek to learn about the potential value of these relatively rare metallic asteroids.

A lot of problems

Last year, Young and the rest of the board members encountered a litany of problems with the mission, including serious problems with flight software and an incomplete process for verifying that software and vehicle systems.

In a report released last November, the review committee placed much of the blame on the management of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, which oversaw Psyche’s development and testing. The field center, which leads many of the space agency’s most prestigious science missions, had embarked on an “unprecedented workload” without having the resources to complete major projects.

These problems have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which came at a key time in the final phase of Psyche mission development and hampered the hiring and in-person activities needed to complete spacecraft testing.

Since that review, NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have worked to address the review board’s recommendations to address these issues. For example, the Psyche program has added experienced team members, retooled much of its workforce, and used better metrics to track progress toward launch and operational readiness.

Recently, the review committee reconvened to consider this NASA response, and according to Young, its members were “extraordinarily impressed” by the actions taken. Monday’s conference call with reporters was about sharing this feedback publicly and expressing confidence in the upcoming launch date.

Increase staff

Laurie Leshin became director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory just weeks before the Psyche mission was put on hold last year. On Monday, she said she welcomed the independent review of Psyche issues and broader issues at the California-based field center so they can be addressed by her leadership team.

Since then, Leshin said, NASA has been aggressive about hiring from the tech industry, which has suffered significant layoffs and recruited employees who have been lost to private space companies in the Los Angeles area. In a sense, he said, NASA is a victim of its own success as it has sought to promote the US commercial space industry.

“There is more competition with the commercial space sector because there is a much more significant commercial space sector,” Leshin said. “As difficult as it is for us, it’s really gratifying to see that the investments we’re making and the partnerships we’re building to move the commercial space industry forward are really working.”

There were many happy speeches on Monday’s call from Leshin and other NASA officials, including Nicola Fox, the associate administrator for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate. However, Fox declined to say how much the year-long delay added to the cost of the mission, which was recently set at $1.13 billion by the US Government Accountability Office.

Furthermore, NASA has yet to prove that these personnel and management issues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory are really at the root. The proof will come with the successful launch of Psyche into space, the launch of the ambitious Europa Clipper mission next year and the restart of work on the recently suspended VERITAS mission to Venus.

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