WASHINGTON — A NASA mission to a large metallic asteroid is on track to launch in October after more than a year of delays, but the mission faces a potential challenge to those plans beyond the agency’s control.
At a Sept. 6 briefing, project officials said preparations were going well for the launch of the Psyche mission to the asteroid of the same name. The mission is scheduled to launch on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket from the Kennedy Space Center in a launch period that opens Oct. 5 and runs through Oct. 25.
“One month out, we are in great shape,” said Laurie Leshin, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which led development of the mission.
The spacecraft is fully fueled with xenon used for its electric propulsion system and is ready to be integrated with the launch vehicle. The Falcon Heavy rocket is being prepared for launch, efforts that will include a static-fire test of the vehicle on the pad about one week before launch, said Serkan Bastug, mission manager in NASA’s Launch Services Program. After that test Psyche will be integrated with the vehicle.
While officials said launch preparations are going well, one wildcard exists beyond the control of the project or the agency. The fiscal year will end Sept. 30 and Congress, still deliberating a series of appropriations bills for the next fiscal year, will need to pass a stopgap spending bill known as a continuing resolution (CR) to fund the government after Sept. 30. Some Republican members of the House say they would oppose a CR unless it contains policy provisions that are unlikely to win passage in the Senate.
If Congress fails to pass a CR, there would be at least a partial government shutdown that would affect many ongoing NASA missions. Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division, said she would attempt to seek an exception to allow the Psyche mission to proceed.
“We are, of course, monitoring that very, very closely,” she said of the threat of a shutdown. “In the past, NASA has been prepared to request a waiver for operations, essential mission and launch personnel to ensure that missions can meet their launch period, and we are certainly prepared to follow that same path here.”
In a plan prepared by NASA in December 2018, just before the last shutdown, the agency said it recognized as “excepted activities” operations of the International Space Station and other spacecraft already launched, as well as space launch hardware processing activities “necessary to prevent harm to life or property.” It added, though, that for missions that have not yet launched, “unfunded work will generally be suspended on that project.”
Psyche was originally scheduled to launch last August but missed its launch window because of delays testing the spacecraft’s guidance, navigation and control software. That led to a broader review of institutional issues at JPL, including a lack of communication among teams and management insight into programs that contributed to Psyche’s delays.
Those issues have been solved, but the cost of the mission has increased. At the time of its confirmation, Psyche had a cost estimate of $996.4 million. Glaze said that its new cost is about $1.2 billion.
The delay will also push back Psyche’s arrival at the asteroid to 2029. “It is a long time, but we have plenty of science planning to do,” said Lindy Elkins-Tanton, principal investigator of Psyche at Arizona State University.
Once at Psyche, the spacecraft will spend more than two years in a series of progressively lower orbits, studying the metallic asteroid with a suite of cameras, spectrometers and other instruments. Psyche will be the first solar system object made primarily of metal visited by a spacecraft, and scientists believe it will provide insights into the cores of terrestrial planets and of solar system formation.
The mission has attracted public attention for another reason: a valuation of $10,000 quadrillion placed on the asteroid by Elkins-Tanton several years, a calculation based the mass of the asteroid and the value of metals like iron and nickel.
“It’s false in every way,” she said of that value, which has been republished hundreds of times. There is no technology to bring Psyche, a main belt asteroid 280 kilometers across as its widest point, back to Earth, and even if it could, it would flood the markets and reduce the value of those metals to effectively zero.
“Psyche is not ever going to make us rich, even though it’s made of metal,” she concluded.