NASA on Friday halted an asteroid mission, blaming the late delivery of its own navigation software.
The Psyche mission to a strange metallic asteroid of the same name was scheduled to launch this September or October. But the agency’s Jet Propulsion Lab delayed several months to deliver its software for navigation, guidance and control — a critical part of any spacecraft. Engineers “just ran out of time” to test it, officials said Friday.
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Now the space agency is going back, and an independent review will look at what went wrong, when the spacecraft can launch again and whether it should go ahead, NASA planetary science chief Lori Glaze said.
NASA has already spent $717 million on Psyche and its estimated total cost, including the rocket to launch it, is $985 million. The small car-sized spacecraft was originally supposed to reach its asteroid in 2026 after traveling more than 1 billion miles.
Now that the software has been distributed, there are no known problems with the spacecraft, except “we are not able to test it right now”, said Lindy Elkins-Tanton, lead scientist for the Psyche mission.
“There is a challenge we could not overcome in time to launch with confidence in 2022,” she said.
There are still at least two launch opportunities, next year and 2024, to reach the asteroid that sits in the belt between Mars and Jupiter, said JPL director Laurie Leshin. This means that Psyche will not reach its asteroid until 2029 or 2030.
But calculating launch times is complicated because the mission requires proper sunlight conditions and the asteroid “is spinning like a rotisserie chicken rather than on top,” Elkins-Tanton said.
Two other smaller missions were going to ride on the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket and NASA is looking at what will happen to them.
Psyche is the latest in NASA’s fleet of asteroid-finding spacecraft. Osiris-Rex is making its way back to Earth with debris from the asteroid Bennu. Last year, NASA launched the Lucy and Dart ships to explore other space rocks and test whether a rocket could definitively hit Earth with an asteroid.
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