NASA’s heavy metal Psyche asteroid journey is set for October

NASA is on track to launch its mission to asteroid Psyche later this year in October, after correcting several project management issues that led to its initial delay.

Psyche was originally scheduled to launch in August 2022 and cost about $1 billion, but was pushed back when engineers delivered flight guidance, navigation and control (GNC) software eight months later than planned. The setback meant that NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) did not have enough time to test vital components of the spacecraft and decided to postpone the launch.

An independent review board conducted an investigation into the delay and released a November 2022 report [PDF] which found that the project was understaffed, workers were suffering from burnout, and top management changes disrupted work. Collaboration and communication between employees has also been made more difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The latest report [PDF], dated May 2023, found that JPL has taken steps to roll over the project. The board now believes NASA’s plan to launch the mission in October 2023 is “credible” and that “the overall likelihood of mission success is high.” The officials leading the Psyche mission recruited more personnel especially in critical areas such as the project’s lead engineer; Experienced CNG Engineer and Lead Fault Protection Engineer.

The board had previously criticized the project for having “serious miscommunications”. Psyche team members reportedly raised issues with management, but felt their concerns weren’t taken seriously or acted upon before it was too late. In response, JPL encouraged employees to come to work together onsite in person rather than independently from home, to improve communication.

“Returning the majority of in-person work has made a huge difference in restoring visibility and informal communications throughout the project,” the report said. “Immediate meetings, coffee social hours, offsite crash courses, and people ‘walking the floor’ have improved team interaction, problem solving, efficiency and confidence. The team is also doing judicious use of remote and hybrid access options as appropriate to ensure flexibility while not compromising their collaboration.”

There are, however, some areas that JPL still needs to work on in preparation for launch, including verification and validation of integrated systems and mission operations. Leaders must establish flight rules, procedures, and train personnel to meet flight readiness requirements.

Nicola Fox, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a statement, “I am pleased with the Independent Review Board’s overwhelmingly positive assessment of JPL’s hard work in correcting the issues outlined in the board’s original report.”

“We know the work is not done. As we move forward, we will work with JPL to ensure these implemented changes continue to be prioritized to position Psyche and the other missions in JPL’s portfolio for success. We convened this board weeks later My intervention as director and addressing the issues raised was a central focus in my first year as director of JPL.

“The results are gratifying,” added JPL director Laurie Leshin.

“Our goals have gone beyond getting Psyche on the launch pad to improving JPL across the board as we work on missions that will help us better understand Earth, explore the solar system and universe, and look for signs of life. Ours Strong response to the board’s findings reinforce the belief that JPL can solve any problem with the right focus and attention.”

The launch delay means Psyche is not expected to reach its target asteroid, 16 Psyche, until August 2029 rather than 2026. 16 Psyche is a unique rock measuring 220 kilometers (140 miles) in diameter and is described as the largest metal planetary body in solar system. Scientists are debating whether the asteroid could be a leftover metallic core from a failed rocky planet and believe it could reveal secrets about how planets like Earth formed.

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