WASHINGTON – A NASA mission on a metal asteroid has undergone a major overhaul, but questions remain about its ability to meet its budget and schedule.
NASA announced on June 11 that the Psyche mission was authorized to begin phase C of its development, which includes the final design of the system as well as the 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 thrilled that we have the go-ahead for Phase C, we are especially ready," said Lindy Elkins-Tanton of the University of Arizona, principal investigator of the mission, in a statement. "With the transition to this new phase of mission, we are about to reveal the secrets of Psyche, a giant and mysterious metal asteroid, which means the world to us."
Psyche, part of NASA's Discovery program and offering low-cost global science missions, is expected to be launched in August 2022 on a select vehicle, which will then fly to the main asteroid of the same name. After an overflight of Mars in 2023, it will reach the asteroid in January 2026. The spacecraft will track at least 21 months in orbit around the asteroid, with a diameter of over 200 km and constituted primarily iron and nickel. Scientists have proposed that the asteroid be the rest of the body of a much larger body that shattered during the formation of the solar system.
Although project leaders say the mission is about to be launched, it is not without problems. A report on major NASA programs published by the Government Accountability Office in May highlights several technical and programmatic issues related to Psyche. This included the fear that the launch load of the spacecraft would be greater than some of its instruments.
The probe uses a camera based on that of the Mars Curiosity rover. Although the instrument is considered a "heritage" and therefore does not pose a development problem, the GAO report indicates that the instrument will experience higher shock levels when launching this mission because of its location in the spaceship. "As a result, qualification tests may be required to resolve the technical problem at increased cost and schedule risk," concluded the GAO.
Another instrument, a gamma and neutron spectrometer, is also expected to face greater mechanical and dynamic loads for Psyché than those for which it was previously qualified. "The project and its contractors are currently conducting a design analysis and looking for alternative mounting solutions, such as a deployable boom, to reduce vibration levels," says the GAO report.
In addition to his scientific instruments, Psyche offers a technological demonstration of NASA called Deep Space Optical Communications, demonstrating the use of lasers for broadband communication. NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate is currently funding the development of this payload, but the GAO has noted that its late delivery could pose a threat to the mission schedule.
The review that Psyche has just completed, officially known as Key Decision Point C, is the point at which NASA makes a formal commitment to project costs and timelines, generally using the Trusted Level methodology. joint. This commitment is usually made at a level of confidence of 70%, which means that the project estimates that there is a 70% chance that the mission will be ready to launch no later than the planned date and not exceeding the expected cost.
Although the announcement of the review confirmed the launch date of August 2022, she did not mention the planned cost commitment in a PDK-C review. NASA spokespersons did not respond to questions originally asked on June 12 about the expected costs of the mission.
The GAO report included a cost range of $ 907.3 million to $ 957.3 million for Psyché, while noting that the cost and schedule baselines would be specified in the revision of the KDP. . NASA's budget proposal for fiscal year 2020, released in February, included the same cost range. NASA asked the mission for $ 213.2 million in its 2020 budget, its year of maximum funding.
Another problem for Psyche is access to staffing and other resources at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the main focus of the mission. The mission could be forced to carry out integration and off-site testing, as the Europa Clipper mission, prepared for launch in 2023, plans to use the same clean room, but imposes more cleanliness requirements. strict.
The GAO report noted "staff shortages" at JPL, which delayed the systems engineering work and the development of software for the mission. "The project aims at acquiring additional technical support for systems engineering and changing the schedule to account for software delays," the report says.
Psyche is not the only JPL mission affected by personnel issues. The lack of available engineers is one of the main reasons why NASA has delayed the launch of Europa Clipper from 2022 to 2023, a problem raised in a report on NASA's Inspector General's mission on May 29
The shortage of JPL staff was raised during the June 11th Space Committee Subcommittee hearing of the House Scientific Committee. "We are finishing the March 2020 lander and, frankly, the best talents are working there, pushing him past the finish line," said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's Deputy Scientific Administrator. . "Some of the people we were going to assign to the next mission are using to complete March 2020. This must be the highest priority."
Some members of the scientific community have questioned the fact that NASA does not increase the size of its engineering staff at JPL to cope with the many missions. Zurbuchen seemed to resist these calls during the hearing in the House. "What I do not want is to increase, necessarily, the size of the center," he said. "What I want to do is think about how we allocate the work and how we organize the strategic missions at the scale of each other to make sure we do not to walk on your feet. "