NASA’s Psyche asteroid mission pulled its head off the chopping block.
The Psyche spacecraft was supposed to blast off towards a strange metallic space rock in the main asteroid belt, between August and October of this year, of the same name. But issues with Psyche’s flight program made it impossible to get through that window, prompting NASA to announce in June that it had postponed takeoff and began a “continuation/end” review of the mission.
As that scary term suggests, cancellation was one potential outcome of the review, which was informed by a separate independent investigation commissioned by NASA and the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California, which runs the Psyche mission.
These panels haven’t fully concluded their work — the independent review team is still finishing their report — but the verdict is there, and it’s good news for Psyche: NASA will continue to develop the mission and is now targeting a launch in October 2023.
“I’m incredibly proud of the Psyche team,” JPL director Lori Lichen said in a statement Friday. (Opens in a new tab) (October 28). “During this review, they have shown significant progress has already been made towards a future launch date. I am confident the plan is going forward and excited about the unique and important science this mission will return to.”
Related: The greatest asteroid missions of all time!
Psyche’s launch atop a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida will continue, as previously planned. But a delay of a year will have consequences for the mission.
For example, a launch in 2022 could have delivered Psyche to its asteroid target in early 2026. But a 2023 launch would require a different path, leading back to August 2029, NASA officials said.
And NASA’s Janus smallsat mission, which is designed to study two separate binary asteroid systems, may not now blast off into space with Psyche, as it did with its launch in 2022. “NASA continues to evaluate options” for Janus, officials wrote in a statement Friday. .
(Another flight, NASA’s Deep Space Optical Communications, will surely fly with Psyche in 2023; it’s integrated into the asteroid probe.)
This delay could also have budgetary implications. The mission’s total lifecycle cost (including launch) is $985 million, of which $717 million had been spent by late June. (Opens in a new tab). Some belt-tightening may be required to stretch the dollars over the additional years that the new plan requires.
There’s no doubt that planetary scientists around the world are raising a glass to Friday’s news, because that means they’ll still be getting an up-close look at one of the most intriguing things in the solar system.
Psyche is an asteroid 140 miles (225 kilometers) wide that appears to be made primarily of iron and nickel — a composition similar to that of Earth’s core. So many researchers believe that it may be the exposed core of an ancient protoplanet, whose rocky layers have been stripped of powerful impacts over eons.
“I appreciate the hard work that the independent review board and the team led by JPL have done to make the mission a success,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said in the same statement.
“Lessons from Psyche will be implemented across our entire task suite,” he added. “I am excited about the scientific insights Psyche will provide during its lifetime and its promise to contribute to our understanding of our planet’s core.”
Mike Wall is the author of “Abroad (Opens in a new tab)Book (Great Grand Publishing House, 2018; illustrated by Carl Tate), a book about the search for an alien life. Follow him on Twitter Tweet embed (Opens in a new tab). Follow us on Twitter Tweet embed (Opens in a new tab) and on Facebook (Opens in a new tab).
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