Software Testing Delays Psyche Asteroid Mission At Least Until Next Year

Software Testing Delays Psyche Asteroid Mission At Least Until Next Year

Launch of NASA’s Psyche mission, the first to study an asteroid made mostly of metal, will have to wait at least until next year. The spacecraft is ready, but the project team ran out of time to test the Guidance, Navigation and Control software, critical to ensuring it gets where it needs to go. The software was delivered late, and may be fine, but they need to validate it before committing to launch. Options in 2023 and 2024 are under review.

Lori Glaze, Director of the NASA’s Planetary Science Division, broke the news at a hastily-called media teleconference this afternoon.

“Following exhaustive analysis, augmentation of resources, and efforts to rescope or rephase functionality, the project and JPL have concluded that Psyche does not have a path to launch with acceptable risks in the 2022 opportunity.” — Lori Glaze

The decision affects not only Psyche itself, but two ride-along missions: Janus, a pair of small satellites the size of suitcases designed to study binary asteroids; and a Deep Space Optical Communications technology demonstration.

Psyche is one of NASA’s competitively-selected Discovery missions led by a Principal Investigator (PI), in this case Lindy Elkins-Tanton at Arizona State University. She briefed the media this afternoon along with Glaze, Laurie Leshin, who just took the reins of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) last month, and JPL’s Henry Stone, Psyche project manager. JPL manages the mission including systems engineering, integration and test. Maxar is providing the high-power solar electric propulsion spacecraft chassis.

Illustration of Psyche Spacecraft with Five-Panel Array Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State Univ./Space Systems Loral/Peter Rubin

All four emphasized that the decision was simply a matter of running out of time to test the software before the launch window for 2022 closes, not a hardware problem with the spacecraft.

“We have today a beautiful, functional spacecraft, built and ready, but there’s one challenge we couldn’t overcome in time to launch in 2022 with confidence. We just had insufficient time to verify and validate functionality associated with the GN&C software and fault protection and to fix any issues that we would then find during that testing. These are critical path items.” — Lindy Elkins-Tanton

They don’t know that anything is wrong with the software. It could be fine. “In fact, we have no known problems with the GN&C software. We just haven’t been able to test it,” Elkins-Tanton underscored.

Psyche is headed to an asteroid by that name in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The spacecraft must arrive when lighting conditions are just right so its multispectral imager can capture useful images. The asteroid is “spinning like a rotisserie chicken so you want to get it when the equator is getting lots of light,” Elkins-Tanton explained.

For this fall, that meant launching between August 1 and October 11, with arrival at the asteroid in 2026.  She said they knew last year that the JPL-built software was late and the testbed needed to verify it was not working properly “but only recently did it become clear that time would just be too tight to reach the 2022 launch period.”

The Science Mission Directorate, of which the Planetary Science Division is part, will set up an independent review team to evaluate options and cost implications for Psyche, the Discovery program, and the planetary science budget overall. Glaze expects a decision “in the coming months.” Elkins-Tanton said there are “nice” launch opportunities in July and September 2023. Glaze said they are looking at options in 2023 and 2024.

While painful news for the Psyche, Janus and Deep Space Optical Communications teams, “it is the right decision” to ensure Psyche’s mission success, Leshin stressed.

“At JPL, we are committed to work with NASA on the options for a path forward for Psyche and to work with the Independent Review Team and learn from this moment as we move forward.” — Laurie Leshin

JPL is a federally-funded research and development center operated for NASA by the California Institute of Technology.

The life-cycle cost for Psyche right now is pegged at $985 million including launch on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy, of which $717 million has been spent so far.

NASA’s Deep Space Optical Communications technology demonstrator is already integrated onto the Psyche spacecraft.  Vastly more data can be communicated via optical, or laser, communications compared to traditional radio frequencies. This experiment will demonstrate that technology on a spacecraft traveling far from Earth.

Illustration showing location of the Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) technology demonstrator on the Psyche spaccraft. Credit: JPL

As for the Janus smallsats, their destination will have to change. Glaze said she is confident they will be able to reach “some interesting science targets.” Janus is a Class D mission in NASA parlance, comparatively low-cost, but high-risk to advance innovative ideas. One of NASA’s SIMPLEX missions (Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration), the Janus spacecraft, built by Lockheed Martin, cost less than $55 million. Daniel Scheeres at the University of Colorado is the PI. Marshall Space Flight Center manages the project.

Illustration of the twin Janus spacecraft.  Credit: Lockheed Martin

Determining Psyche’s path forward is the priority.  Once that decision is made “we will be able to think a little more completely” about what’s in store for Janus, Glaze said.

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