The Psyche asteroid mission is scheduled to launch in October

WASHINGTON — NASA’s mission to a large metal asteroid is on track for launch in October after more than a year of delays, but the mission faces a potential challenge to those plans outside the agency’s control.

At a press conference on Sept. 6, project officials said that preparations are going well for the launch of the Psyche mission to the asteroid of the same name. The mission is scheduled to launch on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket from Kennedy Space Center in a launch period beginning Oct. 5 and running through Oct. 25.

“A month later, we’re in great shape,” said Lori Lechien, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who led the development of the mission.

The spacecraft is fully fueled with the xenon used for its electric propulsion system, and is ready for integration with the launch vehicle. The Falcon Heavy rocket is being prepared for launch, said Serkan Bastog, mission manager for NASA’s Launch Services Program, an effort that will include a static-fire test of the vehicle on the pad about a week before launch. And then the Psyche test will be integrated with the car.

While officials said preparations for the launch are going well, there is one instance that is beyond the control of the project or agency. The fiscal year will end on September 30, and Congress, which is still debating a series of appropriation bills for the next fiscal year, will need to pass a temporary spending bill known as the Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the government after September 30. Say Republican members of the House of Representatives They will oppose the commercial registry unless it includes policy provisions which is unlikely to be approved by the Senate.

If Congress fails to pass the CR resolution, there will be at least a partial government shutdown that will affect many ongoing NASA missions. Laurie Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said she would try to obtain an exception to allow the Psyche mission to continue.

“We are of course watching that very closely,” she said of the threat of closure. “In the past, NASA has been willing to request an exception for operations, core mission and launch personnel to ensure missions can meet their launch window, and we’re certainly willing to follow the same path here.”

In a plan prepared by NASA in December 2018, just before the latest shutdown, the agency said it had recognized operations for “excluded activities” for the International Space Station and other spacecraft already launched, as well as activities for processing space launchers “necessary to prevent” harm to life. or property.” For missions not yet launched, she added, “unfunded work generally on this project will be suspended.”

Psyche was originally scheduled to launch last August, but missed its launch window due to delays in testing the spacecraft’s guidance, navigation and control software. This led to a broader review of JPL’s institutional issues, including a lack of communication between teams and management’s view of the programs that contributed to the delay of the Psyche program.

These problems have been resolved, but the cost of the task has increased. At the time of its confirmation, estimates of the cost of Psyche were $996.4 million. Glaze said its new cost is about $1.2 billion.

The delay will also delay Psyche’s arrival at the asteroid to 2029. “It’s been a long time, but we’ve got a lot of science planning to do,” said Lindy Elkins-Tanton, principal investigator for Psyche at Arizona State University.

Once the spacecraft reaches Psyche, it will spend more than two years in a series of gradually lower orbits, studying the metallic asteroid with an array of cameras, spectrometers and other instruments. Psyche will be the first solar system object made primarily of metal to be visited by a spacecraft, and scientists believe it will provide insight into the cores of the terrestrial planets and the formation of the solar system.

The mission has attracted public attention for another reason: Elkins-Tanton’s multi-year valuation of the asteroid is $10,000 quadrillion, a calculation based on the asteroid’s mass and the value of metals such as iron and nickel.

“It’s false by all accounts,” she said of this value, which has been republished hundreds of times. There is no technology to bring Psyche, the main asteroid belt 280 kilometers wide at its widest point, to Earth, and even if it could, it would flood markets and reduce the value of those minerals to virtually zero.

She concluded, “The breath will never make us rich, even though it is made of metal.”

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