NASA delays already-late $1B Psyche probe's visit to metal-rich asteroid

Given it was first due to blast off last year, what's another week or so?

NASA has pushed back the launch date of its Psyche asteroid probe to October 12 as engineers make sure the spacecraft's nitrogen gas thrusters work as needed.

The $1-billion-plus mission, first slated to lift off in August 2022, has suffered numerous delays.

After the team writing the guidance, navigation, and control (GNC) flight code delivered the software eight months behind schedule, an independent review board was called in to investigate. That panel concluded a lack of staff, high turnover, burnout, and the COVID-19 pandemic were to blame for NASA falling behind schedule.

The space agency eventually settled on October 5, 2023 as a launch date so that sufficient testing could be carried out. Now, the mission has been pushed back further by one week.

"NASA and SpaceX are now targeting October 12 at 1016 EDT for a Falcon Heavy launch of the Psyche mission from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center," the US agency confirmed in a statement.

"The change allows the NASA team to complete verifications of the parameters used to control the Psyche spacecraft's nitrogen cold gas thrusters."

Engineers will thus spend time rerunning simulations and checking flight parameters after they were adjusted to account for the thrusters running hotter than previously expected. Once taken out into space by a SpaceX rocket, the Psyche craft will rely on its thrusters to regulate its orientation as it navigates the void and makes it way, hopefully, over its target asteroid.

When Psyche finally launches it will have to fly about 2.2 billion miles (3.5 billion kilometres) to reach its destination: 16 Psyche, a body so large it makes up one percent of the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The asteroid is made up of a mixture of rock and metal, with the latter making up between 30 to 60 percent of its volume.

Astronomers believe its high metal content suggests the body could be a core leftover from a failed terrestrial planet that began forming billions of years ago. Studying its composition and properties could reveal how rocky planets like Earth were created. Others, however, reckon Psyche came from another type of iron-rich body.

"If it is a planetesimal, asteroid Psyche may offer a close look at the interior of terrestrial planets like Earth. We can't bore a path to Earth's metal core – or the cores of the other rocky planets – so visiting Psyche could provide a one-of-a-kind window into the violent history of collisions and accumulation of matter that created planets like our own," NASA explained.

"If Psyche is not an exposed core of an early planetary building block, it may prove to be an even rarer kind of primordial solar system object – one that's never been seen before."

If all goes to plan and Psyche takes off next month, it should reach the asteroid in August 2029 and orbit it for at least 26 months, coming as close as 47 miles (75 kilometres) from its surface. NASA is also sending the spacecraft off to test a new type of high-bandwidth optical communications system that could one day power the agency's hoped-for future mission to put astronauts on Mars. ®

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