Updated 12:45 p.m. Eastern about spacecraft establishing communications after launch.
WASHINGTON — A NASA spacecraft is finally on its way to a metallic main belt asteroid after a successful Falcon Heavy launch Oct. 13.
The SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 10:19 a.m. Eastern. Its payload, NASA’s Psyche spacecraft, separated from the upper stage 62 minutes after liftoff. The launch was the eighth for the Falcon Heavy but the first by that rocket for NASA.
In a statement, NASA said controllers established two-way communications with the spacecraft at 11:50 a.m. Eastern, confirming the spacecraft was in good condition as it goes through initial post-launch commissioning.
Psyche is a Discovery-class planetary science mission whose destination is an object in the main asteroid belt also called Psyche. That asteroid is made primarily of metal and could be the core of a larger object whose outer layers were stripped away.
On its way to the asteroid, the Psyche spacecraft will conduct a technology demonstration. The Deep Space Optical Communications payload on the spacecraft will test the ability of lasers to provide high-bandwidth communications at interplanetary distances.
The launch took place more than a week into a three-week launch period. In late September NASA delayed the launch, once scheduled for Oct. 5, by a week after a review found concerns with the operating temperature of cold-gas thrusters used to maneuver the spacecraft. Engineers had to revise the operating parameters of the thrusters to avoid overheating.
“There would have been a potential risk of overheating the thrusters and damaging them” if the parameters were not changed, Henry Stone, Psyche project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said at an Oct. 11 briefing. “It was a serious issue that we had to deal with.”
The changes involve a “select subset of parameters” to the thrusters, he said, but did not elaborate on the changes. Those changes, he said, will not affect Psyche’s operations once at the asteroid. “The changes affected some of the timeline margins that we already had, but we’ll conduct the same operations when we get to the body.”
NASA rescheduled the launch for Oct. 12, but postponed it another day because of poor weather. The launch period ran through Oct. 25, with instantaneous launch windows each day.
Psyche was originally scheduled to launch in August 2022. Delays in testing the flight software, though, forced NASA to skip launch opportunities in August and October 2022. An independent review found that those testing delays were symptoms of broader institutional issues at JPL.
While the problems with both Psyche and JPL have been corrected, they affected several NASA science missions. The 14-month launch delay pushed back the spacecraft’s arrival at the asteroid from 2026 to August 2029. The mission’s cost also increased 20% from $1 billion to $1.2 billion.
Psyche’s delay also affected Janus, an asteroid smallsat mission that was to fly as a secondary payload on the launch. The delay meant that Janus could not fly its original mission to go by two pairs of binary asteroids, and the mission could not find suitable alternative targets with its revised trajectory. NASA announced in July it was canceling Janus and putting the completed spacecraft in storage.
The institutional issues at JPL uncovered in the independent review of Psyche’s delays led NASA to delay the next Discovery-class mission under development at JPL, the Venus Emissivity, Radio science, InSAR, Topography, And Spectroscopy, or VERITAS. That mission, selected in 2021 for launch in 2028, is now scheduled for launch no earlier than 2031.
The Psyche delay and budget increase added stress to the overall NASA planetary science program already dealing with challenges like Mars Sample Return. In the agency’s fiscal year 2024 budget request, NASA said it was postponing a heliophysics mission, the Geospace Dynamics Constellation, citing “high budgetary requirements” from other programs.
“A new kind of world”
NASA, and scientists involved with Psyche, said the mission is worth the wait and the additional cost. The spacecraft will spend 26 months orbiting at Psyche in four different orbits, studying the largest solar system body made primarily of metal.
“This will be our first time visiting a world that has a metal surface,” said Lindy Elkins-Tanton, Psyche principal investigator at Arizona State University, at a pre-launch briefing.
A key goal of the mission is to determine Psyche’s origins, said Ben Weiss, Psyche deputy principal investigator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “We have two leading ideas about how Psyche formed,” he said, either as the core of a planetesimal that failed to become a planet, or as a primordial body enriched in metal for some reason.
“We are going to go into orbit around Psyche and measure its various properties at lower and lower altitudes,” he said. The spacecraft is equipped with a camera, gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer and magnetometer.
“It’s primary exploration of a new kind of world,” said Elkins-Tanton. “There aren’t that many completely unexplored types of worlds in our solar system to go see, so that is what is so exciting about this.”