Psyche Mission Facing Delays in Acquiring Instruments, Electronic Parts

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)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA’s first mission to explore a metal asteroid has faced delays in obtaining key instruments and advanced electronic components, according to a new assessment from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The $996.4 million Psyche mission will explore asteroid 16 Psyche. The spacecraft is scheduled to be launched in August 2022.

“A top technical risk for the project is that the delivery of magnetometers—used to detect and measure the magnetic field of the Psyche asteroid—will likely be delayed up to 4 months due to the loss of experienced personnel and additional competing work responsibilities on the part of its contractor,” the assessment stated.

Program officials also report that obtaining advanced electronic parts is costing more and taking longer than anticipated.

Artist rendition of the asteroid Psyche. (Credit: Peter Rubin/ASU)

“Officials stated that these long lead times have led to delays in the project’s ability to acquire parts, which in turn has delayed the instrument critical design review for the Gamma Ray and Neutron Spectrometer (GRNS)—which will be used to determine Psyche’s elemental composition—by approximately 3 months,” the report stated.

The program is attempting to mitigate these risks by hiring more personnel, seeking alternative vendors, and elevating the priority of parts whose acquisition requires long lead times.

GAO’s assessment of the Psyche project follows.

NASA: Assessments of Major Projects
Report to Congressional Committees

Government Accountability Office
April 2020

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 whether it is a planetary core or unmelted material, characterize its topography, assess the elemental composition, and determine the relative ages of its surface regions.

The project will also test a new laser communication technology that encodes data in photons rather than radio waves, to enable more data to be communicated in a given amount of time between a probe in deep space and Earth.

Project Summary

In May 2019, the Psyche project entered the implementation phase and formally established its cost and schedule baselines of $996.4 million and August 2022, respectively. According to project officials, the project’s cost baseline increased over preliminary estimates because they completed a more thorough cost estimate and increased cost reserves.

The Psyche project passed its preliminary design review in March 2019 with all of its heritage technologies mature. The project is tracking several risks, such as a potential delay in delivery of its magnetometer—used to detect and measure the magnetic field of the Psyche asteroid—and difficulties in acquiring advanced electronic parts.

The project has taken some steps to address these difficulties, including hiring additional staff, pursuing alternate vendors, and elevating institutional attention to prioritize procurement of long-lead parts.

Schedule and Cost Status

The Psyche project entered the implementation phase and formally established its cost and schedule baselines in May 2019. The project set a baseline lifecycle cost of $996.4 million and a launch date of August 2022. The baseline is $39.1 million above the top end of the project’s preliminary cost estimate of $957.3 million, and matches the projected launch readiness date.

According to project officials, the baseline represents a more thorough cost estimate than the preliminary cost estimate and an increase in headquarters held cost reserves to be consistent with an independent cost assessment performed as part of the project confirmation process.

As of October 2019, the project reported that while project cost reserves are slightly lower than recommended, the difference is manageable based in part on the project’s use of fixed-price contracts.

Technology and Design

The Psyche project reported that its design is based heavily on heritage technologies with standard engineering modifications. Psyche held its preliminary design review in March 2019 with all of its heritage technologies matured to the level recommended by best practices.

A top technical risk for the project is that the delivery of magnetometers—used to detect and measure the magnetic field of the Psyche asteroid—will likely be delayed up to 4 months due to the loss of experienced personnel and additional competing work responsibilities on the part of its contractor.

The project has attempted to mitigate this risk by hiring additional staff, pursuing alternate vendors, and elevating institutional attention to prioritize procurement of long-lead parts.

Project officials stated that because of the magnetometers’ external location on the spacecraft, they could be integrated later in assembly, test, and launch operations if needed in order to provide some additional schedule margin and avoid delaying other work.

As an added precaution, the project began pursuing a potential alternate vendor in November 2019 in case its mitigation efforts were not sufficient to meet project schedule needs.

According to project officials, the Psyche project is experiencing higher prices and longer than expected lead times for advanced electronic parts, due to competition in the aerospace industry.

Officials stated that these long lead times have led to delays in the project’s ability to acquire parts, which in turn has delayed the instrument critical design review for the Gamma Ray and Neutron Spectrometer (GRNS)—which will be used to determine Psyche’s elemental composition—by approximately 3 months.

While the project does not anticipate this issue to delay project-level milestones, they continue to monitor the acquisition of advanced electronic parts due to their necessity for ongoing work. Project officials said they are mitigating further delays by holding regular meetings with the GRNS provider to prioritize procurement of Psyche parts.

The project has identified risks associated with using heritage power converters based on technical issues experienced on other programs. According to officials, the technical problems discovered arise from difficulties the subcontractor has faced in maintaining institutional
knowledge necessary to design and manufacture power converters that are sufficiently reliable for use in space applications.

As of December 2019, project officials stated they are mitigating this risk through comprehensive testing of procured parts, and by maintaining designs that are able to accommodate converters from multiple contractors.