NASA's Psyche asteroid mission suffers another heavenly holdup

Dodgy weather results in a launch postponement

NASA has pushed its billion-dollar Psyche mission back to October 13 thanks to bad weather at the launch site.

Psyche was due to launch on October 12, but increasingly bleak weather predictions have delayed liftoff of the Falcon Heavy rocket until Friday.

According to the US Space Force, there was an 80 percent chance of the weather violating launch constraints today, improving to 50 percent on Friday. Perhaps mindful of all the delays up to now, controllers opted to hang fire for another 24 hours.

The probe was initially supposed to launch in 2022 but was pushed back due to software problems and a damning report [PDF] into institutional issues at JPL. The plan is for the spacecraft to head for the metal-rich asteroid 16 Psyche, which lurks in the outer part of the main asteroid belt at an average distance from the Sun of three astronomical units (AU). The Earth orbits at one AU.

Psyche will use a combination of electric propulsion and orbital mechanics to reach its destination and must leave the launchpad by October 25. There is one exact time per day when a launch can occur. According to NASA, this means a launch tomorrow at 1419 UTC.

It will take Psyche six years to reach its destination, including a Mars gravity assist in May 2026.

The mission is anticipated to end in 2031, by which time scientists hope the probe will have collected enough data to come to a conclusion about the origins of the metal-rich asteroid. One theory is that 16 Psyche is the exposed nickel-iron core of an early planet, similar to Earth's.

NASA said: "Because we cannot see or measure Earth's core directly, Psyche offers a unique window into the violent history of collisions and accretion that created terrestrial planets."

Assuming, of course, the mission actually launches. The delays have already resulted in the cancelation of the Janus mission originally slated to travel with Psyche due to trajectory changes. SpaceX has also had to push back a Starlink mission to make way for the launch. ®

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