Software testing issue delays Psyche launch

(ORDO NEWS) — NASA’s Psyche mission to the asteroid will not launch this year as previously planned, after the agency concluded it did not have enough time to complete testing of the spacecraft’s software before the launch window closed.

At a briefing on June 24 just hours before liftoff, agency officials said the mission did not have enough time to test the spacecraft’s guidance, navigation and control (GNC) software before the close of the October 11 launch window. NASA has already delayed the launch from August 1 due to problems with software testing.

“After exhaustive analysis, increased resources, and efforts to recode or rephasic functionality, the project and JPL have concluded that Psyche does not have the ability to launch at an acceptable risk in 2022,” said Laurie Gleizes, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division.

Project representatives said the problem was not with the GNC software itself, but with the test bench used to test the software by simulating the flight of the spacecraft. “The testbed is essentially an extended simulation of a real spacecraft.

It’s a combination of hardware and software,” said Henry Stone, Psyche project leader at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “It is designed to create a copy of a flight system, on which you can then run software to test all the characteristics of the system.”

JPL is responsible for building the test bed, he said, but it also includes components provided by Maxar, the prime contractor for the Psyche spacecraft.

“We had to combine this part of the simulators and test equipment with the part in JPL to create a common system. We ran into some problems there.” Maxar did not immediately respond to a request for comment on its role in the Psyche testbed.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton, principal investigator on the Psyche project at Arizona State University, says GNC software development was behind schedule last year. By early this year, the project knew that the test bed was also behind schedule.

The test site is now up and running, but it’s too late to test the software before it launches this fall. “It has only recently become clear that time will be too limited to be in time for a launch in 2022,” she said.

“We haven’t encountered this kind of problem before, especially the unique test environment problem,” said Lori Leshin, director of JPL. She estimates that it would take “a few weeks to a few months” to complete the tests.

Gleizes said NASA had just made the decision not to launch Psyche this year and therefore had no firm plans for the mission’s future.

She said the agency will commission an independent review of the mission to explore the options and associated costs to continue. This will serve as the basis for formal consideration of whether to continue or terminate the mission.

“I would like this to be done as soon as possible,” she said of the mission’s continuation, but did not give an exact timetable, citing the need to evaluate “difficult trajectories” for future launch opportunities.

Elkins-Tanton said there are launch windows for the mission in July and September next year, but did not specify how long it would take Psyche to reach its target, a main-belt metallic asteroid, also called Psyche, if launched at that time. A launch in 2022 would allow the spacecraft to reach the asteroid in 2026.

Leshin noted that the use of an electric propulsion system on Psyche gives mission developers some flexibility in planning trajectories for the spacecraft. “There are good opportunities in 23 that will allow us to reach the asteroid before the end of the decade.”

This review will also look at the additional costs caused by the delay. A NASA project estimate released on June 22 by the Office of Government Accountability notes that Project Psyche cost $965.6 million, 3.1% below the base cost of $996.4 million.

However, the report states that the mission’s cost allowances were lower than projected, and that even before the software testing problem arose, “the project assumed that additional funding would be required to meet the planned launch readiness date.”

Gleizes said the review will look at how additional spending on Psyche could impact the agency’s other planetary science missions, in particular the cost-limited line of Discovery missions that includes Psyche.

She did not elaborate on the potential implications for these Discovery missions, but they could affect two missions to Venus, DAVINCI+ and VERITAS, selected by NASA for development under the Discovery program a year ago.

Psyche’s delay will also affect Janus, a resource-sharing mission launched alongside Psyche to fly around binary asteroids. Psyche’s previous launch delay from August 1 to no earlier than September 20 had already disrupted that mission, preventing it from completing the Earth flyby required to achieve its original goals.

Gleizes said NASA is currently focused on developing a new plan for Psyche. As soon as we know this, we can think in more detail about the future path for Janus,” she said.

The same, she added, applies to Psyche’s demonstration of deep space optical communications technology, an experiment to test high-speed laser communications.

“We will do whatever is necessary and will work with NASA on all options for how things will go forward,” Elkins-Tanton said.

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