Jun 28, 2022 - Science

NASA mission to investigate a metal-rich asteroid's future is unclear

The Psyche probe in a clean room

NASA will not launch a spacecraft to explore a metal-rich asteroid this year as planned, and it's not yet clear when — or if — the mission will get off the ground.

Why it matters: The Psyche mission is designed to study the asteroid Psyche — which is thought to potentially be a fragment of a dead planet's core — from close range.

  • Psyche could one day help scientists piece together a better understanding of how the Earth and other planets like it formed.

Driving the news: NASA announced last week that, because the delivery of the spacecraft's software was delayed among other issues, the spacecraft won't be able to make its planned launch window this year, which ends on Oct. 11.

  • “We just ran out of time on this one,” Lindy Elkins-Tanton the principal investigator for Psyche, of Arizona State University, said during a press conference.
  • Now, NASA is forming an independent review panel to figure out what comes next and what went wrong. The review could indicate a path forward for the mission to launch, or it's possible the panel could recommend NASA cancel the mission entirely.
  • The Psyche mission's cost — including its ride on a Falcon Heavy rocket — is currently capped at $985 million, and $717 million has so far been spent, according to NASA.

Details: If Psyche had been able to make its launch window this year, it would have arrived at the asteroid in 2026.

  • If the issues are resolved in time and NASA presses ahead, the mission could launch in 2023 or 2024, putting the spacecraft at the asteroid in 2029 or 2030.

What to watch: The delay also means NASA's Janus mission — another asteroid exploration probe that was hitching a ride aboard the rocket launching Psyche — hangs in the balance.

  • It's not yet clear what the space agency will do about that mission, which will have to wait to learn its fate until after Psyche's is decided.
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