Preparation for NASA’s mission to the metallic asteroid Psyche has been given the stamp of approval by an independent review board.
It’s a 180-degree turnaround on the mission to explore the asteroid, which is thought to be the remnant core of a long-extinct planet.
But the project was put on ice a year ago with delays validating the spacecraft’s software preventing its scheduled launch in August 2022.
That prompted the investigation of NASA, its California-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory and lab manager Caltech, with the review board’s November report making dozens of recommendations for the project teams to address, including shortages of experienced staff, communications and work scheduling issues, and operational readiness.
The review was led by retired former director of the Goddard Space Flight Centre A. Thomas Young, and found the project’s issues were “much more extensive than originally understood” but the mission still had “significant scientific merit”.
“A credible plan has been developed for the remaining work to be accomplished to support an October 2023 launch,” the report concludes.
In a statement, NASA’s science mission directorate associate administrator Nicola Fox welcomed the report, saying it “will work with JPL to ensure these implemented changes continue to be prioritized”.
Exploring Psyche will contribute new knowledge of planetary cores like Earth’s iron-rich centre. To date, the deepest drilling project on record is the Kola Superdeep Borehole near the border of Russia and Norway. At 12km deep, it’s still more than 2,800 km from the planet’s solid iron core.
The launch window for Psyche will be open from 5-25 October this year. After launch, the spacecraft will perform a gravity-assisted flyby of Mars to slingshot its way towards Psyche’s position in the outer rim of the asteroid belt, where it is scheduled to arrive in 2029.
There, it will spend 26 months undertaking observations and data collection.
Preparations for lift-off will get underway this month, with final testing to take place at the Astrotech Space Operations Facility in Florida. Once complete, the spacecraft will be attached to a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket for its October launch appointment.
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