NASA’s journey to a strange metal asteroid should finally begin in October
The Psyche mission has a launch date again, after software problems and COVID-era delays.
NASA’s upcoming Psyche mission will send a small probe to a unique metal asteroid—a curious object that may be the exposed heart of a former planet. But to prepare for the 280-million-mile journey, engineers have had to attend to a million little details over the course of years of planning and construction. Working those out took more time than anticipated: NASA delayed Psyche’s launch last year, prompting concerns about the mission’s future and triggering an investigation into what caused the set back. On Monday, NASA announced that Psyche is thriving and on track for a new launch date in October 2023.
“The 2023 launch date is credible, and the probability of mission success is high,” said A. Thomas Young, chair of the independent review board that assessed Psyche’s missteps, at a news conference. NASA Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) Director Laurie Leshin confirmed the fall blast-off: Psyche is “green across the board, and on track for October launch.” Of the 18 weeks to go until launch, seven are buffer time—a pretty impressive margin for such an intense engineering project.
Psyche, announced in 2017, was first delayed in June 2022 when issues with its flight software arose during testing. NASA commissioned the review board soon after, which delivered its findings last fall. The review cited issues across the entire laboratory—understaffing, a lack of experienced managerial oversight, budget strain, and the COVID-19 pandemic—as factors contributing to the mission’s woes. JPL’s reckoning with this review had ripple effects, including the controversial indefinite pause of the VERITAS mission to Venus.
Now, in May 2023, the review board has reassessed JPL’s readiness. The Psyche debacle may have raised questions about the ability of JPL to juggle building more than a dozen spacecraft, but NASA officials emphasized the concerns plaguing the center’s operations has been addressed. The progress made at JPL is “not only outstanding, but world-class as determined by our review board,” said Nicola Fox, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.
JPL’s changes include hiring more experienced staff (including luring back talent that left JPL for commercial spaceflight companies), reorganizing the engineering teams to focus on high-priority work, and updating their hybrid work policy to bring more people back in-person to the lab. “We’ve overcome our workforce issues, our missions are staffed,” said Leshin.
If Psyche leaves Earth as scheduled in the fall, it will arrive at the asteroid 16 Psyche in 2029. The mission will hopefully reveal information about how planets form, and will confirm if 16 Psyche is the leftover metal core of a failed planet as hypothesized. Some companies even see the Psyche mission as a potential first step toward mining asteroids for precious metals, as the space rock contains approximately 10 quintillion dollars worth of materials.
And things are looking up for other missions, too—especially since JPL recently delivered the NISAR Earth-radar satellite on schedule and is making good progress for next year’s launch of Europa Clipper. The laboratory’s strong progress is a good sign for the hopeful restart of VERITAS, which would be a huge win for planetary scientists and a monumental return to our sister planet.