The delay in the launch of Psyche has forced a rethinking of the ridesharing mission

The Psyche expedition will travel to a special metal-rich asteroid circling the Sun between Jupiter and Mars. The asteroid Psyche is unique in that it seems to be the bare nickel-iron core of an ancient planet, one of our solar system’s building components. The launch of NASA’s Psyche asteroid expedition has been delayed, causing another asteroid mission to change its plans.

Janus, a NASA smallsat mission chosen in 2019, will deploy two identical spacecraft as secondary payloads aboard the Falcon Heavy rocket carrying Psyche as the primary payload. Following a set of Earth flybys, each Janus spacecraft was supposed to pass by two binary asteroids, 1996 FG3, and 1991 VH.

The mission’s main investigator, however, stated on June 8 that the mission design is no longer feasible. Dan Scheeres of the University of Colorado stated during a meeting of NASA’s Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) that the mission plan anticipated Psyche would launch in August as planned. NASA announced on May 23 that the mission’s launch would be postponed until no later than September 20 in order to give the spacecraft’s software more time to be tested.

With the new launch date, he claims the spacecraft will no longer be able to execute those Earth flybys. “Those flybys were critical for setting up our target binaries, 1991 VH, and 1996 FG3,” he stated.

If the mission launches between October 7 and 10, he believes Janus will be able to approach one of the initial binary asteroid targets, 1996 FG3. That would be at the conclusion of Psyche’s new launch window, which concludes on October 11th. In such a case, the mission would launch both spacecraft to 1996 FG3, enabling it to accomplish its scientific objectives.

“As a rideshare, we have no authority to affect the launch dates or the aiming of the launch vehicle,” he explained. If the spacecraft is unable to fly by any of its initial destinations, the mission team is currently looking for alternate asteroids that the spacecraft may explore. According to Scheeres, the spacecraft might visit “several asteroids” depending on the launch date. He didn’t say which ones are being considered, but he did say that some of them break present mission restrictions like flyby speed and communications data rate. “Many of these limits can be met,” he added. “It simply takes a little more work.”

Those plans are contingent on Psyche’s ability to launch during the new launch window. Carol Polanskey, a co-investigator on the Psyche project at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, stated work continues to update the simulation environment required for software testing during an initial presentation at the SBAG meeting.

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