After a technical delay the previous week, NASA’s Psyche mission remains grounded in the face of weather constraints. Weather in Florida remains uncooperative, and teams are working around the clock to find a suitable window for Psyche to take to the skies.
On Wednesday, October 11, NASA, SpaceX and the 45th Weather Squadron discussed the status of the mission, noting that there were no technical constraints – only the notoriously unpredictable Florida weather remained as a major concern. Arlena Moses, weather officer with the 45th, went into further detail: “It looks right now that warm front is going to be a little north of us as we go into the first part of tomorrow morning and what that’s going to kind of help us out with is that it should take a lot of the heaviest rainfall and best chances of storms north of us. However, we still will have a very unstable atmosphere, so there still may be some storms and rainfall around, probably lots of cloud cover, all of these things that we have concern for with our rocket launches and our lightning commit criteria.” Conditions on the ground on Thursday were less than ideal for launch, with high winds and the occasional rain band moving through the region.
According to Lindy Elkins-Tanton, lead of the mission, teams are now targeting a Friday attempt at 10:19:43 AM – weather permitting. Following a successful liftoff from Historic Launch Complex 39A, the spacecraft will separate from the upper stage of the Falcon Heavy vehicle one hour after liftoff and begin its deployment sequence – using its inertial measurement unit to help measure and subsequently null any rotation. Following this, the spacecraft will deploy its Rocketlab built solar panels, and begin a comprehensive health check to assess the condition of the vehicle. Following successful health checks, the spacecraft will phone home to the Deep Space Network, and begin its voyage to 16 Psyche.
After the 100 day checkout period completes, Psyche will enter “cruise” mode, and remain in hibernation as it voyages to the asteroid. Following a flyby of Mars in 2026, Psyche will arrive at the asteroid of its namesake in 2029, beginning a two year notional mission of exploration. For mission scientists, this launch represents the first steps in unlocking the mysteries of our solar system that have puzzled scientists since 16 Psyche’s discovery in 1852.
The gravity of this launch is apparent for many of those present, and an immense effort to ensure mission success is palpable across the mission team. The Psyche mission narrowly survived a congressional review last year after technical issues precluded the team from hitting their 2022 launch window, adding several years to the voyage. At the start of the 2023 launch window, NASA made the call to delay the mission by a week, citing technical concerns with the spacecraft once again. Dr. Henry Stone, the Psyche Project Manager at JPL, noted the need for a week-long delay earlier in the month ahead of the most recent launch attempt. “We wanted to make sure we took the time and we did a week to make sure, run all of our testing and verification again, that the adjustments to those parameters would be appropriate,” Stone said. “This is a huge investment, a mission like this, and we wanted to be absolutely, absolutely sure that we were ready to go.”
Psyche’s launch is unique in that it is the first Falcon Heavy purchased through NASA’s Launch Services Program, and the seventh launch in the program overall. In the face of wind downs of several vehicles like Atlas, and the development of larger vehicles like Vulcan and New Glenn, Falcon Heavy remains available as a powerful lifter for NASA science missions. Julianna Scheiman, SpaceX’s Director of Civil Satellite Missions, said this mission will also be the first time they are flying what’s called a “category three certification” mission, the highest tier of certification one can get on a launch vehicle. “It demonstrates that the launch vehicle is ready for NASA’s most important science missions,” Scheiman explained. “That means Falcon Heavy has been through the wringer, whether that’s design reviews, qualification testing, acceptance testing, post-flight data reviews, independent verification/validation work. Falcon Heavy is ready and we are so excited to be supporting the Psyche mission.”
The tension at the press site ahead of the Launch Readiness Review was palpable, with reports of a potential scrub circulating throughout the day. Anxiety over weather, launch readiness and vehicle health have been a constant talking point since the technical delay a week prior – for good reason. NASA’s billion dollar mission represents some of the most forefront science the agency is conducting today, continuing their mission to answer questions about how our universe evolved. The hard work and dedication of Psyche’s mission team is one of the aspects of this mission that is most admirable, even beyond the technical challenge of voyaging to a metal world.