A close encounter with binary asteroids


An artist depiction of the twin Janus spacecraft. Sincerely: Lockheed Martin

CU Boulder and Lockheed Martin will lead a new space mission to have a close-up look at a mysterious class of solar system objects: a binary asteroid.


These bodies are pairs of asteroids that orbit around each other in space, much like the Earth and the Moon. In a review of a project on 3 September, NASA officially took forward the Janus mission, named after the two-faced Roman god. The mission will study these asteroid couplets in never-before-seen details.

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

“Binary asteroids are a class of objects for which we do not have high-resolution scientific data,” said Anno at CH Boulder and a distinguished professor at the HJ Smade Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences, Shiroz. “Everything they have is based on ground comments, which doesn’t give you as much detail as you get closer.”

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

“We see an advantage in being able to shrink our spacecraft,” said Wood, the project’s project manager. “With technology advances, we can now explore our solar system and address important science questions with small spacecraft.”

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

New small satellite to meet binary asteroids

Rendering the orbital pattern of the binary asteroid 1999 kW4. Sincerely: NASA / JPL

Fly summary

For Lockheed Martin and Sheher, the Janus mission is the latest phase in a long history of approaching asteroids. For example, both have played leading roles in NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission, which is currently in orbit around the asteroid Beanu. Lockheed Martin built and supports the operation of the spacecraft, while the skier heads the mission’s radio science team.

“This partnership marks the university’s two biggest assets in aerospace,” said vice chancellor of research and innovation Terry Feige. The combination of top-notch research and student researchers in aerospace at CU Boulder with the capabilities of industry partners such as Lockheed Martin enables us to accelerate transformational discoveries in the market for real-world impact. ”

But binary asteroids, which represent about 15% of the solar system’s asteroids, add a new level of complexity to the story of rocky debris in space.

“We think that binary asteroids are formed when you have a single asteroid that rises so fast that the whole thing splits in two and goes through this crazy dance,” Shehr said.

The mission will coincide with two binary couples – named 1996 FG3 and 1991 VH – each showing a different kind of crazy dance. The pair, called 1991 VH, for example, is a wildcard of two with a “moon” that revolves around a very large primary asteroid following a hard-to-predict pattern.

The team will use a suite of cameras to track these dynamics in unprecedented detail. Among other goals, Sheishers and his colleagues hope to learn more about how binary asteroids move around each other and through space.

“Once we look at them closely, there will be a lot of questions that we can answer, but these will also raise new questions.” “We think Janus will inspire additional missions for binary asteroids.”

Short and fast

The entire mission, Wood added, is being made as flexible and hardy as possible.

Wood explained that over the past decade, spacecraft have become smaller as scientists move to a pint-sized spacecraft called the CubeSat and Smalltuts to collect data. Such missions cut costs and preparation time using more economical off-the-shelf parts.

Janus’ twin spacecraft, however, will not advance further than any miniature mission to date. After being destroyed in 2022, they would first complete an orbit around the Sun, before returning back to Earth and dropping their way into space and out of Mars’ orbit. This is a long way to go for machines that weigh only about 80 pounds each.

“I think it’s a great test to get from the aerospace community,” Wood said. “And the Colorado-focused 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.”

And, Wood said, the team is set to embark on a mission in earnest: there is much to do before the spacecraft launch in just two years.

“We see this development as an important market for scientific expeditions for smaller and more capable spacecraft in the future,” Wood said. “Now, we want to execute and show that we can do this.”


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Provided by the University of Colorado at Boulder

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