CU Boulder and Lockheed Martin will lead a new space mission to capture the first-ever close-up view of a mysterious class of solar system objects: binary asteroids.
These bodies are pairs of asteroids orbiting the cosmos, like the Earth and the Moon. In a review of the project on September 3, NASA gave the official green to the Janus mission, named after the two-faced Roman god. The mission will study these pairs of asteroids in unprecedented detail.
This will be a moment for two: In 2022, the Janus team will launch two identical spacecraft that will travel millions of miles to fly separately near two pairs of binary asteroids. Their observations could open a new window on how these different bodies evolve and even disintegrate over time, said Daniel Scheeres, Janus̵
“Binary asteroids are a class of objects for which we have no high-resolution scientific data,” said Shaers, a prominent professor in the department of Ann and H.J. “Everything we have on them is based on ground-based observations that don’t give you as much detail as if you were up close.”
The mission, which will cost less than $ 55 million under NASA’s SIMPLEx program, could also help usher in a new era of space exploration, said Josh Wood of Lockheed Martin. He explained that Janus’ double spacecraft were designed to be small and agile, each the size of a suitcase.
“We see the advantage of being able to reduce our spacecraft,” said Wood, the mission’s project manager. “With technological advances, we can now explore our solar system and solve important scientific issues with smaller spacecraft.”
Janus is led by the University of Colorado Boulder, where Scheeres is based, who will also undertake scientific analysis of images and mission data. Lockheed Martin will operate, build and operate the spacecraft.
For Lockheed Martin and Scheeres, the Janus mission is the last step in a long history of approaching asteroids. Both have played key roles, for example in NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission, which is currently in orbit around the asteroid Bennu. Lockheed Martin built and maintained the spacecraft while Scheeres led the radio team on the mission.
“This partnership embodies two of the university’s greatest achievements in space,” said Terry Fies, Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation. “Combining first-class research and student space researchers at CU Boulder with the capabilities of industry partners such as Lockheed Martin allows us to accelerate the transformational discoveries of the real-world market.”
But binary asteroids, which make up about 15 percent of the solar system’s asteroids, add a new level of complexity to the history of rock fragments in space.
“We think binary asteroids are formed when you have an asteroid that spins so fast that the whole thing splits in two and goes through this crazy dance,” Scheeres said.
The mission will meet two binary pairs – called 1996 FG3 and 1991 VH – each of which presents a different kind of crazy dance. The pair, called 1991 VH, for example, is a substitute for the two with a “moon” whipping around a much larger primary asteroid, following a hard-to-predict pattern.
The team will use a set of cameras to track this dynamic with unprecedented detail. Among other goals, Scheeres and colleagues hope to learn more about how binary asteroids move – both around each other and through space.
“Once we see them up close, there will be many questions we can answer, but they will also raise new questions,” he said. “We think Janus will motivate additional missions to binary asteroids.”
Small and fast
The whole mission, Wood added, is designed to be as flexible and resilient as possible.
Wood explained that in the last decade, spacecraft have become smaller as scientists have turned to pint-sized spacecraft called CubeSats and SmallSats to collect data. Such missions reduce costs and preparation time by using more affordable ready-made parts.
However, Janus’ double spacecraft will dare to go further than any of these miniature missions to date. After the 2022 explosion, they will first complete an orbit around the sun before heading back to Earth and heading far into space and out of Mars. This is a long way for machines that weigh only about 80 pounds each.
“I think this is a great test of what the space community can do,” Wood said. “And the Colorado-oriented development of this mission, combining the cosmic talent of both CU Boulder and Lockheed Martin, is a testament to the skills available in the state.”
And, Wood added, the team is ready to start the mission seriously: There are many things that need to be done before the spacecraft is launched in just two years.
“We see this development towards smaller and more capable spacecraft to be a key market for scientific missions in the future,” Wood said. “Now we want to do it and show that we can do it.”
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Provided by the University of Colorado at Boulder
Quote: Where No Spaceship Has Went Before: A Close Encounter with Binary Asteroids (2020, September 10), retrieved on September 11, 2020 from https://phys.org/news/2020-09-spacecraft-encounter- binary-asteroids.html
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