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NASA's Psyche mission: 2022 launch is off after software arrives late

Launch window slides into 2023 or 2024 for asteroid-probing project

Sadly for NASA's mission to take samples from the asteroid Psyche, software problems mean the spacecraft is going to miss its 2022 launch window.

The US space agency made the announcement on Friday: "Due to the late delivery of the spacecraft's flight software and testing equipment, NASA does not have sufficient time to complete the testing needed ahead of its remaining launch period this year, which ends on October 11."

While it appears the software and testbeds are now working, there just isn't enough time to get everything done before a SpaceX Falcon Heavy sends the spacecraft to study a metallic-rich asteroid of the same name.

The plan had been to launch in 2022 and spend three-and-a-half years under solar electric cruise before arriving at the asteroid in 2026 for 21 months in orbit. Scientists are keen to take a closer look since Psyche appears to be the exposed nickel-iron core of an early planet.

Maxar Technologies built the solar-electric propulsion chassis, and the payload includes an imager, magnetometer, and gamma-ray imager.

NASA had already pushed the launch back from August 1 to no earlier than September 20 after compatibility issues cropped up with the software testbed simulators.

Last week's announcement is tantamount to a throwing in of the towel regarding Psyche's original mission. While launches are possible in 2023 and 2024, the orbital positions of the Earth and the asteroid means Psyche would not arrive at its destination until 2029 or 2030 respectively.

And then there are two ride-along projects, scheduled for launch alongside Psyche on the Falcon Heavy. The Janus mission planned to send two probes to visit a pair of asteroids; the first launch delay meant new targets were required.

A lengthier delay will require another rethink. A Deep Space Optical Communications demonstration involving high-data-rate laser communications is also to be carried along for the ride and its mission will also need a rethink.

The Psyche mission was due to cost $985m, of which $717m has already been spent. The cost of the delay is, according to NASA, "still being calculated."

NASA's Science Mission Directorate Associate Administrator, Dr Thomas Zurbuchen, noted that "a decision on the path forward will be made in the coming months."

Outright cancellation for Psyche seems very unlikely at this point. However, its mission (and those of its ride-alongs) could well end up quite different to the one planned just a few short months ago. ®

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