NASA has made the decision to delay the launch of its much-anticipated Psyche asteroid mission by one week, rescheduling it from the originally planned October 5th to October 12th, 2023. The Psyche spacecraft is set to embark on its journey to explore the main belt asteroid Psyche, and this delay has been attributed to the need for crucial updates to the spacecraft’s thruster configuration. The announcement came late on September 28th, following a thorough flight readiness review for the asteroid mission.
The launch will be carried out using a Falcon Heavy rocket, with a precise launch window at 10:16 a.m. Eastern Time on October 12th, taking off from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A. NASA explained that this one-week postponement will provide engineers with the necessary time to validate the parameters used for nitrogen cold-gas thrusters, which are instrumental in orienting the spacecraft. Engineers identified the need for changes in these parameters after determining that the thrusters would operate at warmer temperatures than initially anticipated.
Maintaining the thrusters within their designated temperature limits is critical for ensuring the long-term performance and reliability of these components. NASA stated that the verification process would involve extensive simulations and adjustments to flight parameters and procedures to guarantee their proper functioning. Laurie Leshin, the director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which leads the asteroid mission, emphasized the importance of this endeavor in a social media post, highlighting that while the thrusters are not the primary propulsion system, they play a crucial role, particularly immediately after launch.
“We are confident the team is on track to mitigate this concern, and we look forward to our launch in just 2 weeks!” Leshin added, expressing optimism about the mission’s progress despite the slight delay.
Impact of the Delay and Asteroid Mission Background
The one-week delay has reduced the launch window for the Psyche asteroid mission, which now spans from October 12th through October 25th. During this period, the spacecraft will have daily instantaneous launch opportunities, allowing it to chart its course toward the main belt asteroid Psyche. It is noteworthy that this trajectory was adjusted last year after the spacecraft missed its initial launch target of August 2022 due to software testing issues. An investigation into this delay uncovered significant institutional challenges at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which had contributed to the setback. Subsequent to the review, independent panels indicated that these issues had been addressed effectively, providing greater confidence in the mission’s prospects.
However, it is important to note that this delay has also impacted the mission’s cost and timeline. Originally budgeted at just under $1 billion, the delay and associated adjustments have increased the mission’s cost to $1.2 billion. Furthermore, the arrival of the Psyche spacecraft at the asteroid, initially slated for 2026, is now expected in 2029. Once the spacecraft reaches its destination, it will dedicate two years to a series of progressively lower orbits, aiming to conduct comprehensive studies of the asteroid’s structure and composition. Psyche represents a unique target in our solar system, being primarily composed of metal.
Uncertainties and Contingency Plans
During a briefing held on September 6th, project officials had not reported any issues with the spacecraft, and there were no mentions of concerns regarding the cold-gas thrusters at that time. The primary source of uncertainty was the possibility of a federal government shutdown in October due to a lapse in appropriations, which could potentially affect the mission.
In a recent update on September 28th, NASA officials clarified that the Psyche asteroid mission launch has been classified as an “excepted” activity. This classification means that the mission will be allowed to proceed even in the event of a government shutdown. With neither the House nor the Senate having passed a continuing resolution to fund the government temporarily when the new fiscal year begins on October 1st, the prospect of a shutdown looms large. Despite these challenges, NASA remains committed to launching the Psyche asteroid mission on its revised schedule, and the world eagerly anticipates the groundbreaking discoveries it will bring in the field of asteroid exploration.