Lockheed Martin, CU Boulder to Lead New Small Satellite Mission to Rendezvous With Binary Asteroids

 In Americas, USA, Space

The University of Colorado Boulder and Lockheed Martin will soon lead a new space mis­sion to cap­ture the first-ever close­up look at a mys­te­ri­ous class of solar system objects: binary aster­oids.

These bodies are pairs of aster­oids that orbit around each other in space, much like the Earth and Moon. In a project review on Sept. 3, NASA gave the offi­cial go-ahead to the Janus mis­sion, named after the two-faced Roman god. The mis­sion will study these aster­oid cou­plets in never-before-seen detail. Known as Key Decision Point‑C (KDP‑C), this review and approval from NASA allows for the project to begin imple­men­ta­tion, and base­lines +the project’s offi­cial sched­ule and budget.

It will be a moment for twos: In 2022, the Janus team will launch two iden­ti­cal space­craft that will travel mil­lions of miles to indi­vid­u­al­ly fly close to two pairs of binary aster­oids. Their obser­va­tions could open up a new window into how these diverse bodies evolve and even burst apart over time, said Daniel Scheeres, the prin­ci­ple inves­ti­ga­tor for Janus.

“Binary aster­oids are one class of objects for which we don’t have high-res­o­lu­tion sci­en­tif­ic data,” said Scheeres, dis­tin­guished pro­fes­sor in the Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences at CU Boulder. “Everything we have on them is based on ground obser­va­tions, which don’t give you as much detail as being up close.”

The mis­sion, which will cost less than $55 mil­lion under NASA’s SIMPLEx pro­gram, may also help to usher in a new era of space explo­ration, said Lockheed Martin’s Janus Project Manager Josh Wood. He explained that Janus’ twin space­craft are designed to be small and nimble, each one about the size of a carry-on suit­case.

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

Janus is led by the University of Colorado Boulder, where Scheeres is based, which will also under­take the sci­en­tif­ic analy­sis of images and data for the mis­sion. Lockheed Martin will manage, build and oper­ate the space­craft.

The mis­sion will ren­dezvous with two binary pairs — named 1996 FG3 and 1991 VH — each show­cas­ing a dif­fer­ent kind of orbital pat­tern. The pair called 1991 VH, for exam­ple, has a “moon” that whips around a much bigger “pri­ma­ry” aster­oid fol­low­ing a hard-to-pre­dict pat­tern.

The team will use a suite of cam­eras to track the dynam­i­cal motion in unprece­dent­ed detail. Among other goals, Scheeres and his col­leagues hope to learn more about how binary aster­oids move — both around each other and through space.

“Once we see them up close up, there will be a lot of ques­tions we can answer, but these will raise new ques­tions as well,” Scheeres said. “We think Janus will moti­vate addi­tion­al mis­sions to binary aster­oids.”

Wood added that the mission’s twin space­craft, each of which weigh just about 80 pounds, will travel far­ther than any small satel­lite to date.

After blast­ing off in 2022, they’ll first com­plete an orbit around the sun, before head­ing back toward Earth and sling-shot­ting their way far into space and beyond the orbit of Mars.

“I think it’s a great test for what is achiev­able from the aero­space com­mu­ni­ty,” Wood said. “And the Colorado-cen­tric devel­op­ment for this mis­sion, com­bin­ing the space talent of both CU Boulder and Lockheed Martin, is a tes­ta­ment to the skills avail­able in the state.”

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