NASA puts asteroid mission on ice over software delay

Now the space agency will step down, and an independent review will look at what went wrong or whether the launch should go ahead at all.

NASA put an asteroid mission on hold on Friday, blaming the late delivery of its own navigation software.

The Psyche mission to a strange metal asteroid of the same name should start this September or October. But the agency’s Jet Propulsion Lab was several months late in delivering its software for navigation, guidance and control — a crucial part of any spacecraft. Engineers were “just running out of time” to test it, officials said Friday.

Now the space agency will step down, and an independent review will examine what went wrong, when the spacecraft could launch again, and even if it goes ahead, said Lori Glaze, NASA’s chief of planetary sciences.

NASA has already spent $717 million on Psyche, and the estimated total cost, including the rocket to launch it, is $985 million. The small car-sized spacecraft was originally scheduled to reach its asteroid in 2026 after traveling more than 1 billion miles.

Now that the software has been delivered, there are no known problems with the spacecraft other than “we just couldn’t test it,” said Lindy Elkins-Tanton, the Psyche mission’s lead scientist.

“There’s this one challenge that we haven’t been able to complete in time to launch 2022 with confidence,” she said.

There are at least two more launch opportunities next year and more in 2024 to get to the asteroid, located in the belt between Mars and Jupiter, said JPL Director Laurie Leshin. This means that Psyche would not reach its asteroid until 2029 or 2030.

Calculating launch times is complicated, however, because the mission needs the right sunlight conditions and the asteroid “spins like a fried chicken, not a top,” Elkins-Tanton said.

Two other small missions were slated to ride on SpaceX’s heavy Falcon rocket, and NASA is looking into what will happen to those.

Psyche is just the latest in NASA’s fleet of asteroid exploration spacecraft. Osiris-Rex is on his way back to Earth with debris from the asteroid Bennu. Last year, NASA launched the ships Lucy and Dart to explore other space rocks and test whether a rocket could deflect an asteroid heading straight for Earth. NASA puts asteroid mission on ice over software delay

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