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NASA reassigns Venus boffins to save short-staffed asteroid interceptor

Need Another Special Artisan? The US space agency does

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory failed to launch the Psyche asteroid-visiting mission originally scheduled later this year due to an "imbalance between the workload and the available workforce," it admitted in an independent report released late last week.

The plan to send an orbital spacecraft to 16 Psyche – the largest Type-M asteroid yet found, which is located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter – was canned after NASA failed to deliver the flight software and testing equipment on time. Engineers would not have sufficient time to test the spacecraft in time to make the launch window by October 11, so NASA has kicked it back to October 2023 at the earliest.

An independent review board, commissioned by NASA and its Jet Propulsion Laboratory unit, investigated why the $985 million mission was delayed. The report [PDF] is publicly available and recommends the space agency hire more staff to work on the project. The board blamed the delay on "institutional issues" at JPL caused by post-pandemic working conditions, which have allowed employees to work from home more.

NASA said it has since pulled more employees to work on the Psyche mission – including hiring more leaders as well as a project chief engineer, guidance navigation, and control cognizant engineers. Officials also agreed to get workers together in-person more in the office to encourage them to communicate.

Top management at JPL must also organize meetings more regularly for the project and figure out its priorities and status, including developing metrics and targets to meet for tracking progress, the report suggests.

Staff recruited for the Psyche mission have been pulled from the space agency's Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy (VERITAS) mission initially scheduled to launch in December 2027. VERITAS is now expected to be delayed by three years at least, and will not launch earlier than 2031.

"We welcome this opportunity to hear the independent review board's findings and have a chance to address the concerns," Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said in a statement.

"It's our job to notice issues early – this report is essentially a canary in the coal mine – and address them. Information like this helps us for more than just Psyche, but also for upcoming key missions such as Europa Clipper and Mars Sample Return."

The 16 Psyche asteroid was chosen for its unique features. With a diameter measuring 226 kilometers (140 miles), it ranks among the dozen most massive space rocks in the Solar System. Its mass is on the order of 1019 kilograms, making it a bit lighter than dwarf planet Ceres or Saturn's moon Enceladus.

16 Psyche's size and mass aren't its only interesting features. The asteroid is made up of nickel and iron – leading some astronomers to speculate that it may be a chunk of the metallic core of a failed protoplanet. Observing 16 Psyche could give scientists a better understanding of how planets like Earth successfully formed billions of years ago – and why others failed. ®

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