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NASA's heavy metal Psyche asteroid trip is a go for October

Team problems found last year seem to have been resolved

NASA is on track to launching its Psyche asteroid mission later this year in October after correcting numerous project management issues that led to its initial delay.

Psyche was originally scheduled to launch in August 2022 and has cost roughly $1 billion, but was pushed back when engineers delivered the guidance, navigation, and control (GNC) flight software eight months later than expected. The setback meant that NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) didn't have enough time to test the spacecraft's vital components, and decided to postpone the launch.

An independent review board conducted an investigation into the delay, and issued a November 2022 report [PDF] which found that the project was inadequately staffed, workers suffered from burnout, and top management changes disrupted work. Collaboration and communication between employees were also made more difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The latest report [PDF], dated May 2023, found that JPL has taken action to turnaround the project. The board now believes NASA's plan to launch the mission in October 2023 is "credible" and that the "overall probability of mission success is high." Officials leading the Psyche mission recruited more staff – especially in critical areas such as the project chief engineer; GNC cognizant engineer and the fault protection lead engineer. 

The board previously criticized the project for having "major communication failures." Psyche team members reportedly raised issues with management, but felt their concerns were not taken seriously or acted upon before it was too late. In response, JPL encouraged employees to come and work together onsite in person instead of independently from home, to boost communication.

"The return to majority in-person work has made a tremendous difference in restoring visibility and informal communications across the project," the report said. "Drop-in meetings, social coffee hours, off-site intensives, and individuals 'walking the floor' have improved team interaction, problem-solving, efficiency, and trust. The team is also making judicious use of remote and hybrid access options as appropriate to ensure flexibility while not compromising their collaboration."

There are, however, some areas JPL still needs to work on to prepare for launch, including verification and validation of integrated systems and mission operations. Leaders need to establish flight rules, procedures, and train personnel to meet requirements for flight readiness. 

Nicola Fox, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said in a statement: "I am pleased with the independent review board's resoundingly positive assessment of JPL's hard work in correcting the issues outlined in the board's original report."

"We know the work is not over. As we move forward, we will work with JPL to ensure these implemented changes continue to be prioritized to position Psyche and the other missions in JPL's portfolio for success. We convened this board weeks after I stepped in as director and addressing the issues it raised has been a central focus in my first year as director of JPL.

"The results are gratifying," JPL's director Laurie Leshin added.

"Our goals went beyond getting Psyche to the launch pad to improving JPL across the board as we work on missions that will help us better understand Earth, explore the solar system and the universe, and search for signs of life. Our strong response to the board's findings reinforces the notion that JPL can solve any problem with the right focus and attention."

The launch delay means that Psyche is not expected to reach its target asteroid, 16 Psyche, until August 2029 instead of 2026. 16 Psyche is a unique rock measuring 220 kilometers (140 miles) in diameter, and is described as the largest metal planetismal body in the solar system. Scientists are debating whether the asteroid could be a leftover metallic core of a failed rocky planet, and believe it could reveal secrets to how planets like Earth formed. ®

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