Psyche launch delay forces rethink of another asteroid mission

(ORDO NEWS) — The delay in the launch of NASA‘s Psyche asteroid mission is forcing another asteroid mission to rethink its plans.

Janus, a small NASA satellite that will launch two identical spacecraft as a secondary payload on a Falcon Heavy rocket. The main payload of this mission will be the Psyche spacecraft. After a series of maneuvers near Earth, each Janus spacecraft had to fly past different binary asteroids, designated 1996 FG3 and 1991 VH.

However, the mission’s chief engineer stated on 8 June that this plan was no longer possible. Speaking at a NASA Small Body Assessment Group (SBAG) meeting, Dan Sheres of the University of Colorado noted that the mission plan previously called for Psyche to launch this August.

NASA announced on May 23 that the launch of the mission will be delayed until September 20 to allow more time to test the spacecraft’s software.

According to him, after the revision of the launch date, the spacecraft will no longer be able to perform maneuvers near the Earth with the existing design of the spacecraft.

He said that Janus could reach one of the original binary asteroids, 1996 FG3, if the launch took place between October 7 and 10.

This launch will be near the end of the new launch window for the Psyche mission, which closes on October 11th. In this scenario, the mission will send both vehicles to 1996 FG3, which will allow it to achieve at least some threshold science goals.

“We don’t have the ability to influence launch dates or target the launch vehicle,” he said.

Now the mission team is looking for alternative asteroids that the spacecraft could visit if they can’t fly past one of their original destinations. Sheres said they found “several asteroids” that the mission could visit, depending on the day of the launch.

He did not reveal which ones, but said some of the dates violate existing mission limits, such as overflight or data rates. “Many of these limitations can be accommodated, it just takes a little more work,” he said.

These plans are heavily dependent on Psyche’s ability to launch within the revised launch window. During a previous presentation at the SBAG meeting, Carol Polanski, co-investigator of the Psyche mission at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said that work is ongoing on the upgrade needed for software testing.

“We have a new JPL flight software architecture that needs to be compatible with Maxar’s simulation capabilities,” she said. Maxar has built a transport unit for the Psyche spacecraft. “It turned out to be a little more difficult than we expected, so we put a lot of resources into solving this problem.”

She said the issue should be resolved in the “near future” but did not elaborate. “The project is very motivated to launch within this window,” she said. “We are doing our best to get into this second launch window.”

If Psyche and Janus miss this second window, Polanski suggested the mission could return to its original launch plan in 2023, before it was pushed back a year. “We haven’t considered what that will mean yet,” she said.

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