NASA Mission to Examine Binary Asteroids Fits With Wider, “Responsive Space” Vision

By Frank Wolfe | September 21, 2020
Send Feedback

The twin-spacecraft Janus project will study the formation and evolutionary implications for small “rubble pile” binary asteroids (Lockheed Martin)

As the nascent U.S. Space Force envisions a “responsive space” future in which the newest military service is able to launch low-cost rockets carrying small satellites and cube satellites, NASA is getting into the game with a new space mission – Janus, named after the two-faced Roman god – to examine the heretofore mysterious binary asteroids using twin, 80-pound spacecraft.

This month, NASA approved the University of Colorado at Boulder and Lockheed Martin to begin working on the project and coming up with a baseline budget and schedule for the planned 2022 launch.

The mission is to scrutinize two pairs of binary asteroids – 1996 FG3 and 1991 VH, which orbit around each other in space, akin to the movement of the earth and the moon.

The Janus mission is to cost less than $55 million under NASA’s SIMPLEx program.

Josh Wood, the Janus project manager for Lockheed Martin, said that Janus holds promise in creating small and nimble space exploratory vehicles, as Janus’ twin spacecraft are each to measure the size of a carry-on suitcase.

“We see an advantage to be able to shrink our spacecraft,” he said in a statement. “With technology advancements, we can now explore our solar system and address important science questions with smaller spacecraft.”

In 2022, the twin Janus vehicles are to travel millions of miles to track closely two pairs of binary asteroids, and the project’s investigation into these asteroids could reveal how they evolve, according to University of Colorado aerospace engineering Prof. Daniel Scheeres, the main investigator for Janus.

Scheeres said that scientists do not have high-resolution data on binary asteroids and that Janus would provide that data.

The University of Colorado at Boulder leads Janus and is to analyze the mission images and data, while Lockheed Martin is to build, manage, and operate the spacecraft.

Wood said that the twin, Janus spacecraft will travel farther than any small satellite thus far. The Janus are first to orbit the sun, then head back toward earth before moving into deep space beyond the Mars orbit.

Receive the latest avionics news right to your inbox