NASA cancelled an asteroid mission on Friday, blaming the delay in delivering its own navigation software. The Psyche mission, named after a strange metal asteroid, was supposed to launch this September or October. However, the agency’s Jet Propulsion Lab was several months late in delivering navigation, guidance, and control software—a critical component of any spacecraft. Engineers “just ran out of time” to test it, according to officials on Friday.
Now, NASA will take a step back, and an independent review will look into what went wrong, when the spacecraft could launch again, and even if it should go ahead, according to NASA planetary sciences chief Lori Glaze.
NASA has already spent $717 million on Psyche, and the total cost, including the rocket to launch it, is estimated to be $985 million. After a journey of more than a billion miles, the small car-sized spacecraft was supposed to arrive at its asteroid in 2026.
There are no known problems with the spacecraft now that the software has been delivered, except that “we just haven’t been able to test it,” according to Lindy Elkins-Tanton, the Psyche mission lead scientist.
“There was one challenge we couldn’t overcome in time to launch with confidence in 2022,” she explained.
According to JPL Director Laurie Leshin, there are still at least two launch opportunities next year and more in 2024 to reach the asteroid in the belt between Mars and Jupiter. That means Psyche won’t reach its target until 2029 or 2030.
However, calculating launch times is complicated because the mission requires proper sunlight conditions and the asteroid “spins like a rotisserie chicken instead of a top,” according to Elkins-Tanton.
NASA is investigating what will happen to two other small missions that were supposed to ride along on the SpaceX Falcon heavy rocket.
Psyche is the most recent addition to NASA’s fleet of asteroid-exploring spacecraft. Osiris-Rex is returning to Earth with debris from the asteroid Bennu. NASA launched the ships Lucy and Dart last year to explore other space rocks and see if a rocket could deflect an asteroid heading straight for Earth.