NASA halts Psyche, mission to a mineral-rich asteroid

Computer software delays have delayed the launch of a NASA spacecraft to explore what appears to be a metallic asteroid that may be the core of a protoplanet that exploded in the early days of the solar system by a giant impact.

NASA announced Friday that the mission will not take off at all this year.

The completed spacecraft, named Psyche after the asteroid you’ll visit in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter, is at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and was scheduled to launch from there on August 1 aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. However, the main navigation program for guiding and controlling the movements of spacecraft in space was delayed by several months.

In addition, the test setup, which sends signals to the spacecraft’s computer making it think it’s actually in space, didn’t work properly when engineers tried to integrate components from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, which runs the mission, and Maxar, the company that She built the Psyche spacecraft.

Mission officials said the test setup is now running, and they don’t know of any problems with the software. But the correction process will take another weeks to months to finish.

“We just ran out of time on this,” Arizona State University lead investigator Lindy Elkins Tanton of Arizona State University said Friday during a press conference.

Last month, NASA announced that the launch attempt would be postponed to no later than September 20, instead of August 1. It will be launched by October 11th.

“We looked at many, many options, and even with very aggressive modification, we didn’t feel confident enough that we’d get to this, that we’d successfully get to that window on a mission we were confident would fly,” said Laurie Leshin, director of Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

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NASA is setting up an independent review committee to investigate what went wrong and suggest what to do next. NASA officials said it’s too soon to know how much delay will add to the $985 million price tag, including the launch of the Falcon Heavy. The review committee may even recommend that the assignment be abolished.

From radar observations, the asteroid Psyche looks like an ellipsoid, roughly the same as Massachusetts. It is also denser than most asteroids.

The breath is also very bright, which adds to the suspicion that it is made of metal.

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

Now, the Psyche mission team is back to thinking about launches in 2023 and 2024, and the spacecraft won’t reach the asteroid until 2029 or 2030.

This setback delays not only Psyche, but also the Janus mission, two small identical spacecraft slated to launch before heading out to explore a couple of binary asteroids. The delay from August to September had already sent plans into a scramble to reach the original goals. Now this mission will have to search for other asteroids to visit.

Another NASA mission at the Kennedy Space Center announced better news on Friday. In preparation for the first launch of the Space Launch System, the massive rocket that will bring astronauts back to the Moon, NASA engineers conducted a training countdown for the rocket on the launch pad including loading liquid fuel.

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The Fourth attempt at dress rehearsal, which ended on Monday, counted down to 29 seconds. NASA had hoped it would count down to about 9 seconds, before the engines would ignite for a real launch. But a continuous fuel line connector leakage prevented this.

However, NASA officials decided they now had enough data to prepare the rocket for launch, a mission that would send a capsule, without astronauts, on a trip around the Moon. It could happen as late as August, officials said, but it’s too early to give a more precise launch date.

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