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Psyche mission back on track following adjustments, glowing IRB review

Last year, NASA’s mission to study the metal-rich asteroid Psyche, located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, missed its launch date as logistical problems delayed final systems checks.

This week, an institutional review board gave the mission team a glowing report on its operational course corrections.

“This week was the final report of the review board saying — I’m so glad to say — we did an excellent, excellent job,” said Lindy Elkins-Tanton, vice president of ASU’s Interplanetary Initiative and principal investigator of the NASA Psyche mission. “And we are on the right path to launch in October, just under four months from now, so it's a very happy ending to a very intensive process.”

The board praised NASA and Jet Propulsion Laboratory for making suggested changes and putting the Psyche mission on track.

Elkins-Tanton said it was a positive end to a painful but helpful process.

“We are digging into areas where we failed to understand that more resources were needed, or people with more experience or whatever it was that could have helped us,” she said. “That's painful to do. But they were incredibly helpful and right on point.”

Though the board’s report blamed the pandemic for some delays, it also cited staffing, communication and oversight problems, now largely addressed.

“There were some areas where we really did need a deeper bench, and that was one of the first things that JPL did for us was got us those 10 or 11 very experienced leaders that we needed,” said Elkins-Tanton.

After coming off a sprint to the finish line that stumbled as it neared the 2022 launch date, the team had to dust itself off and continue round-the-clock work — all while keeping up morale, coordinating review board interviews and rebudgeting and rescheduling the mission.

“That’s a process that usually takes six months, and we had six weeks to do it. So this last year has been a fascinating one from a learning point of view,” said Elkins-Tanton.

The 2023 launch adds almost two and half years to the spacecraft’s flight time. Elkins-Tanton explained the new trajectory is necessary because everything in the solar system is in constant motion.

“A year later, Earth and Psyche, the asteroid, are in different places with respect to the sun than they were a year ago,” she said. “And we also need a gravity assist by flying by Mars, and Mars is in a different place.”

On the positive side, the craft will encounter the asteroid at a better position for analysis.

“We stand to even learn a little more than we would have had we launched last year,” said Elkins-Tanton. “So that's a little silver lining on top of this process.”

Following its 2029 arrival, the robotic craft will orbit and study (16) Psyche, one of only nine known iron-nickel asteroids, for 26 months. There, using instruments built by ASU, Applied Physics Laboratory, a consortium between MIT and UCLA and others, the craft will map the asteroid’s features, structure, composition and magnetic field.

Nicholas Gerbis was a senior field correspondent for KJZZ from 2016 to 2024.