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NASA is psyched about asteroid mission

Metal Tech News – November 9, 2022

Psyche mission to $10 quintillion metal asteroid is slated for 2023.

NASA and the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory are psyched about a recent decision to put their planned mission to a metal-rich asteroid beyond Mars back on the docket.

The space agency had originally planned to send a probe to 16 Psyche, a roughly 140-mile-wide asteroid in the belt between Mars and Jupiter, earlier this year. This mission, named after the destination asteroid, however, had to be scrubbed due to problems with the spacecraft's flight software and other more fundamental issues that caused the Psyche mission to miss its 2022 launch window.

To be so close to a mission with such enormous discovery potential and not be able to make the launch window was a letdown for NASA, the Psyche mission team, and a world hoping to learn more about this asteroid made up of an estimated $10 quintillion (that is 10 followed by 18 zeros) worth of nickel, iron, and other metals.

To understand the fundamental issues that led to missing the window, and to decide whether to continue with the Psyche mission, NASA assembled an independent review board to investigate and report its findings and recommendations.

As it turns out, the Psyche mission shared the same type of issues that are being experienced by fast-food restaurants and other Earth-bound businesses in a post-COVID world – "an imbalance between the workload and the available workforce."

"It's our job to notice issues early – this report is essentially a canary in the coal mine – and address them," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

To restore balance to the workforce, NASA is working closely with JPL to add members to Psyche and other mission teams, as well as strengthen their communications and review systems to better identify what challenges might affect mission success.

With a clear solution and a resolution set in motion, NASA and JPL have rescheduled the Psych mission for 2023.

Psyche's core mission

While an estimated value of roughly $128 million for every person on Earth makes 16 Psyche an intriguing destination for any space explorer, the economic worth is not what is driving NASA and JPL's interest in this enormous chunk of metals in our solar system's asteroid belt.

Instead, scientists want to know exactly what this chunk of metal is and how it was formed.

The prevailing theory is that Psyche is the core of a protoplanet with a violent past that involved collisions that chipped away any mantle or other rocky outer layers that might have formed to leave only the more durable metal core.

"The asteroid is most likely a survivor of multiple violent hit-and-run collisions, common when the solar system was forming," Arizona State University, which leads the Psyche mission. "Thus, Psyche may be able to tell us how Earth's core and the cores of the other terrestrial planets came to be."

There, however, is a chance that Psyche is not a protoplanetary core at all.

"Or is Psyche a survivor of some more unusual process not yet imagined?" ASU pondered.

To answer this mystery of the solar system, the expanded and upgraded Psyche mission team continues to complete testing of the spacecraft's flight software in preparation for a launch in October 2023.

The Psyche spacecraft is equipped with instruments to measure the asteroid's gravity; levels of iron, nickel, silicon, and oxygen; and magnetic field. Combined with a pair of high-resolution cameras, the craft will provide clues to how 16 Psyche was formed and what it is made of.

Making the 2023 launch window would mean that the Psyche spacecraft would reach Mars in 2026, getting a gravity assist from the Red Planet that would propel the ship onward to the metal asteroid in August 2029.

"I am confident in the plan moving forward and excited by the unique and important science this mission will return," said JPL Director Laurie Leshin.

Reevaluating future missions

Missing the Psyche mission 2022 launch window brought to the fore the question of whether NASA and JPL were trying to do too much with too little. After all, the Artemis mission to establish a human presence on the Moon and then Mars is a monumental endeavor unto itself. Then there are the ongoing Mars rover missions and plans to send a probe to retrieve rock samples collected from the Red Planet and plans to investigate Jupiter's moon, Europa, and Venus in the next decade.

The independent review board assembled by NASA found that the JPL flight project workforce was too small and the experience within that workforce was too short. This is coupled with the new realities of reorganizing communications in a post-pandemic work environment.

In response, the Psyche project has added experienced leaders and staff throughout the project, including filling the project chief engineer and guidance navigation and control cognizant engineer positions.

JPL also formed a team to actively manage the staffing shortage, as well as the reporting and oversight structures, across multiple projects.

"The board members worked diligently over the past several months to help JPL uncover and understand issues related to the delay of the Psyche launch," said Leshin. "Their insights are helping JPL and NASA take the steps necessary to ensure success on Psyche and future missions."

These future missions are also being reevaluated and shuffled.

NASA continues to assess options for its planned Janus mission, which would send two spacecraft about the size of carry-on luggage to explore twin binary asteroid systems. The Janus satellites were originally slated to launch on the same SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket as Psyche, and NASA is determining whether to have them piggyback on the 2023 Psyche launch.

NASA's Deep Space Optical Communications technology demonstration, testing high-data-rate laser communications for space, is integrated into the Psyche spacecraft and will continue as planned on the new launch date.

After reviewing the independent report, NASA anticipates delaying the launch of the Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy (VERITAS) mission for at least three years to free up staff and funding for Psyche and other core planetary missions.

"We welcome this opportunity to hear the independent review board's findings and have a chance to address the concerns," said Zurbuchen. "Information like this helps us for more than just Psyche, but also for upcoming key missions such as Europa Clipper and Mars Sample Return."

Further details of the Perseverance rover and its rock sampling and caching mission can be read at Mars geologist preps for historic drilling in the August 4, 2021 edition of Metal Tech News.

Author Bio

Shane Lasley, Metal Tech News

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With more than 16 years of covering mining, Shane is renowned for his insights and and in-depth analysis of mining, mineral exploration and technology metals.


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