WASHINGTON – A NASA mission to a metallic asteroid has passed a major review, but remains unanswered to remain on budget and schedule.
NASA announced June 11 that the Psyche mission was cleared to proceed to Phase C of its development, which includes final system design as well as assembly and testing of the spacecraft and its instruments. The mission had completed a preliminary design review earlier this year.
"The Psyche team is not only that we have the go-ahead for Phase C, more importantly we are ready," said Lindy Elkins-Tanton of Arizona State University , the principal investigator for the mission, in a statement. “With the transition to this new mission phase, we are one of the major advocates of uncovering the secrets of psychology, a mysterious metallic asteroid, and that means the world to us.” Psyche, part of NASA's Discovery program of lower -cost planetary science missions, is scheduled to launch in August 2022 on a vehicle yet to be selected to fly to the main belt asteroid of the same name. After a Mars flyby in 2023, it will arrive at the asteroid in January 2026. The spacecraft will spend at least 21
While project officials say the mission is on track for launch, it is not without issues. A report on major NASA programs published by the Government Accountability Office in May highlights several technical and programmatic issues with Psyche. This is the fact that the spacecraft will experience higher launches than its instruments are rated for. While the instrument is considered “heritage” and thus does not pose development challenges, the GAO reports that the instrument will experience higher shock levels during launch on this mission because of its location on the spacecraft. "GAO encompasses the technical issue at increased cost and schedule risk," the GAO concluded.
Another instrument, a gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer, is also expected to face higher mechanical and dynamic loads on Psyche than it had previously been qualified for. "The project and its contractors are conducting design analysis and investigating alternative mounting options, such as a deployable boom, to reduce vibration levels," the GAO report stated.
In addition to its scientific instruments, Psyche is carrying a NASA technology demonstration called Deep Space Optical Communications, demonstrating the use of lasers to provide high-bandwidth communications. NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate is funding development or that payload, but the GAO noted that its late delivery could be threatened by the mission's schedule.
The review Psyche just completed, formally known as Key Decision Point C, is the point at which is NASA makes a formal cost and schedule commitment for a project, typically using the joint confidence level methodology. That commitment is usually made at the 70 percent confidence level, meaning the project believes there is a 70 percent chance the mission will be ready for launch no later the scheduled date and no higher than the projected cost.
While the announcement about the review confirmed the August 2022 launch date, it did not mention the cost commitment expected in a KDP-C review. NASA spokespersons did not answer questions first submitted June 12 about the mission's projected cost.
The GAO report included a cost range of $ 907.3 million to $ 957.3 million for Psyche, while noting that cost and schedule baselines would be specified at the KDP-C Review. NASA's fiscal year 2020 budget proposal, released in February, included the same cost range. NASA requested $ 213.2 million for the mission in that 2020 budget, its peak year of funding.
Another issue for Psyche is access to staffing and other resources at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the lead center for the mission. The mission could be forced to conduct integration and testing off-site because the Europe Clipper mission, being prepared for 2023 launches, plans to use the same clean room but has stricter cleanliness requirements.
The GAO report cited "staffing shortfalls" that JPL has delayed systems engineering work and software development for the mission. "The project is working to acquire additional systems engineering support and plan the schedule to accommodate software delays," the report stated.
Psyche is not the only JPL mission affected by staffing issues. NASA pushed back the launch of Europe Clipper from 2022 to 2023, and issue noted in a report on the mission by NASA's Office of Inspector General May 29.
Staffing shortages at JPL came up during a June 11 hearing of the House Science Committee's space subcommittee. "We're right now finishing off the March 2020 lander and, frankly, the top talent is working on that, pushing it over the finish line," said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science. “Some of the people we were going to put on the next mission are working to finish off March 2020. That has to be the highest priority.”
the engineering workforce at JPL to accommodate the crunch of missions. Zurbuchen appeared to resist those calls at the House hearing. "What I don't want to do is increase, necessarily, the center size," he said. "What I want to do is think about how we distribute the work and how we space strategic-scale missions relative to each other to make sure that we don't step on each other's feet. ”