Uh Oh, NASA is Reviewing Psyche and May Terminate the Mission

NASA is reviewing its mission to visit the asteroid 16 Psyche. The Administration has convened a 15-member review board to examine the mission and its failure to meet the scheduled 2022 launch. The review began on July 19, and the board will present their findings to NASA and JPL in late September.

Psyche is an M-type asteroid well-known to astronomers. Psyche is a massive asteroid and the largest of the M-type asteroids. It’s also one of the 12 most massive asteroids, and with a diameter of 220 km (140 miles), Psyche holds around 1% of the mass in the Main Asteroid Belt.

Its status as an M-type asteroid is what makes it an intriguing target. Only about 8% of asteroids are M-type asteroids, and M-type asteroids contain higher concentrations of metals than other types. The concentration of metals makes Psyche potentially valuable, and sometimes Psyche is referred to as the “Gold Mine Asteroid” or the “Quadrillion Dollar Asteroid.” But beyond its value in metals like iron and nickel, Psyche is also an enticing scientific target.

The Psyche mission was approved in 2017 and was scheduled to launch in August 2022 on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy and arrived at Psyche in 2026. But on June 24, 2022, NASA delayed the mission. NASA explained that the spacecraft’s flight software and testing equipment was delivered too late. There wasn’t enough time to test everything before the August 2022 launch date.

On April 29, 2022, the Psyche spacecraft arrived at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It travelled there from NASA’s JPL in California aboard a C-17 aircraft. Image Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

Now the mission is under review. The mission isn’t being reviewed because of its inherent value. The review is to understand what led to the delays and to understand how to avoid similar delays in the future.

“The review will study factors of workforce environment, culture, communication, schedule, and both technical and programmatic risks. Results of this study will help inform a continuation/ termination review for the mission, as well as provide NASA and JPL with actionable information to reduce the risk for other missions,” read a NASA statement.

That’s a fairly generic statement. But after the review board met for the first time, NASA released a more detailed statement.

“The focus is on understanding technical issues that led to the delay, how the risk of delay was or was not understood and communicated within the project, as well as to those charged with oversight of the mission at JPL in a timely manner, and the work required to ensure that Psyche is ready for a potential future opportunity,” the statement read.

Asteroid Psyche’s varied surface suggests a dynamic history, which could include metallic eruptions, asteroid-shaking impacts, and a lost rocky mantle. Image Credit: Screenshot courtesy of NASA (Illustration.)

Delays aren’t uncommon in space missions. Their enormous complexity and expense mean launch schedules can be subject to change for all kinds of reasons. Just look at the series of delays the James Webb Space Telescope went through before finally being launched. But being delayed this close to launch is more unusual. The spacecraft has already been delivered to the launch facilities at Kennedy Space Center.

Some of the language in NASA’s statements drill down more deeply into the problem.

“Study any and all issues that contributed to the launch delay, including the lack of visibility of the problems to management, standing review board, technical authorities, etc. or through standard life cycle reviews,” NASA writes. For some reason, it looks like the problems that caused the delay snuck up on the mission and weren’t visible to management. The unpreparedness seems to have been a surprise to some managers, which is not good. NASA is concerned about that. They don’t want it to happen again and need to understand how it happened.

“Identify when the problems began arising, why there was a lack of visibility, and determine if there were missed opportunities to take action earlier to possibly prevent the launch delay or prevent shipping to KSC and preparations for launch,” the statement says.

NASA also says they want to identify all other issues that might have caused the problem and how they can mitigate them. They also want to identify “specific corrective actions” that they can take to prevent a reoccurrence like this in the Psyche mission rework and other missions.

On the surface, it doesn’t look like a cancellation is in the future. The spacecraft is already built and sitting at the launch facility. But there’s no certainty.

The Psyche spacecraft is currently at the Kennedy Space Center in the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility. Technicians were preparing it for launch, but now it’s on hold. Image Credit: NASA/Isaac Watson

All we know right now is that the review board will present their findings to NASA and JPL sometime in late September.

Evan Gough

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