NASA’s Psyche Mission Aims to Launch Ahead of Original Schedule

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NASA’s Psyche mission to a distant metal asteroid will carry a revolutionary Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) package. This artist’s concept shows Psyche spacecraft with a five-panel array. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State Univ./Space Systems Loral/Peter Rubin)

The Psyche asteroid project is a rarity among the 17 major NASA projects that were recently assessed by the Government Accountability Office (GAO): it’s actually aiming to launch ahead of schedule.

“NASA selected the project’s 2023 launch proposal, but later directed the project to work to an accelerated launch readiness date of August 2022,” the GAO report stated. “The accelerated launch date will allow Psyche to arrive at the asteroid over 4 years earlier than the original timeline due to a quicker flight.”

The spacecraft is set to arrive in 2026 at asteroid 16 Psyche, which appears to be an exposed nickle-iron core of an early planet. This will be the first exploration of metal asteroid.

Psyche relies heavily upon mature designs and technologies that are being modified for the requirements of the mission.  

“The project plans to fly three instruments that have flown on prior planetary missions and buy a commercially available spacecraft design,” the assessment found. “The project also plans to fly the Deep Space Optical Communications technology demonstration (DSOC), which is a laser-based communication device that could be beneficial to future deep space missions requiring high data rates, but it is not needed to meet Psyche’s science requirements. As a result, Psyche could launch without DSOC if it experiences delays.”

The GAO did find one concern that could affect cost and schedule. The program might have to conduct integration and testing of the spacecraft off-site from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory due to having to share a clean room with the Europa Clipper project, which has much stricter contamination control and planetary protection requirements.

“These stricter requirements have a cost impact and the project is researching options to partition the clean room without jeopardizing the Europa Clipper project’s requirements,” the report stated. “The project is also researching options to conduct integration and testing off-site, such as using the contractor’s facilities.”

The GAO’s assessment of the Psyche mission is below.

NASA: Assessments of Major Projects
Government Accountability Office
May 1, 2018
Full Report

Psyche

Psyche will be the first mission to visit a metal asteroid and aims to understand a previously unexplored component of the early building blocks of planets: iron cores. The project plans to orbit the Psyche asteroid to determine if it is a planetary core, characterize its topography, assess the elemental composition and determine the relative ages of its surface regions.

Project Information

NASA Lead Center: Jet Propulsion Laboratory
International Partner: None
Launch Location: Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL
Launch Vehicle: TBD
Mission Duration: 21 months science operation
Requirement Derived from: Discovery Program Announcement of Opportunity 2014
Budget Portfolio: Science, Planetary Science

Project Summary

In December 2016, Psyche was one of two projects selected by the Discovery program—a series of competed missions that have focused scientific investigations and short development periods—to proceed to the preliminary design and technology completion phase. NASA selected the project’s 2023 launch proposal, but later directed the project to work to an accelerated launch readiness date of August 2022. The accelerated launch date will allow Psyche to arrive at the asteroid over 4 years earlier than the original timeline due to a quicker flight.

According to project officials, the Psyche project’s current design utilizes mature, heritage technologies with some modifications. The project plans to fly three instruments that have flown on prior planetary missions and buy a commercially available spacecraft design. The project also plans to fly the Deep Space Optical Communications technology demonstration (DSOC), which is a laser-based communication device that could be beneficial to future deep space missions requiring high data rates, but it is not needed to meet Psyche’s science requirements. As a result, Psyche could launch without DSOC if it experiences delays.

Cost and Schedule Status

Credit: GAO

In December 2016, Psyche was one of two projects selected by the Discovery program—a series of competed missions that have focused scientific investigations and short development periods—to proceed to the preliminary design and technology completion phase. NASA selected the project’s 2023 launch proposal, but later directed the project to work to an accelerated launch readiness date of August 2022. The accelerated launch will allow Psyche to arrive at the asteroid over 4 years earlier than the original timeline due to a quicker flight path.

Credit: GAO

At the most recent decision point, the project set a preliminary cost range of $907.3 million to $957.3 million. The project plans to hold its preliminary design review in March 2019 and its confirmation review in May 2019, at which point it will formally establish its cost and schedule baseline. The project is currently holding cost and schedule reserves consistent with the level required by Jet Propulsion Laboratory policy.

Technology and Design

The Psyche project reported that its current design does not use any critical technologies and is based
heavily on heritage technologies with modifications, which project officials assess as all being matured to at least technology readiness level 6. We have previously asserted that mature technologies must be demonstrated in a relevant environment and should be very close to form, fit, and function.

The Psyche project reports that its heritage technologies are mature, but the project plans to modify some technologies. For example, the project plans to modify the Gamma Ray Neutron Spectrometer instrument—previously used on a mission to Mercury and will be used to determine Psyche’s elemental composition—by adding a new cooling system, which the project is tracking as a risk because of possible problems accommodating the new cooling system.

Project officials stated the spacecraft bus design—reported mature by the project—is based on a commercially available design that is used for Earth-orbiting communication satellites. The project plans to make minor modifications to some of the spacecraft bus to enable it to operate more robustly in deep space.

The project also plans to fly the Deep Space Optical Communications technology demonstration (DSOC), which is a laser-based communication device that could be beneficial to future deep space missions requiring high data rates.

NASA is developing and funding DSOC as a separate project in the Space Technology Mission Directorate. As a result, the Psyche project does not control the cost or schedule for DSOC. The Psyche and DSOC projects have been working closely together to align their schedules, such as by establishing regular team meetings and developing a memorandum of understanding to ensure consistent expectations between both projects. If DSOC experiences delays, project officials stated that there is an option that Psyche could launch without it because DSOC is not needed to meet Psyche’s science requirements.

Other Issues to be Monitored

In September 2017, the project reported a risk that it may have to conduct integration and testing off-site because it is planning to share a clean room with the Europa Clipper project, which has stricter planetary protection and contamination control requirements. These stricter requirements have a cost impact and the project is researching options to partition the clean room without jeopardizing the Europa Clipper project’s requirements. The project is also researching options to conduct integration and testing off-site, such as using the contractor’s facilities.

Project Office Comments

Psyche project officials provided technical comments on a draft of this assessment, which were incorporated as appropriate.

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