CU Satellite Mission Selected To Explore Binary Asteroid

NASA rendering of a Janus satellite rendezvousing with a binary asteroid. Image Credit: NASA

June 25, 2019 – A team led by the University of Colorado Boulder landed a coveted finalist spot in a new NASA program that will launch small satellites into space to explore the origins and evolution of the solar system. The CU Boulder group has proposed a mission that will send two of these miniature craft to rendezvous with, and study, a target binary asteroid – a pair of asteroids that revolve around each other in close proximity.

Daniel Scheeres, a professor in the Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences, will lead the new mission, which is called Janus: Reconnaissance Missions to Binary Asteroids. Lockheed Martin will provide project management. Other CU Boulder team members on the mission include Jay McMahon, an assistant professor in aerospace engineering and Paul Hayne, an assistant professor in the Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences and the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics.

“The Janus mission is a testament to CU Boulder’s legacy of exploring the solar system and our close partnerships with aerospace industry leaders like Lockheed Martin,” said Bobby Braun, dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Science. “The university is a national leader in the development and operation of small spacecraft that generate unprecedented insights on our home planet, our sun, our solar system and exoplanets for a fraction of the cost of traditional space missions.”

Janus, named for the two-faced Roman god, will employ a pair of small satellites to collect unprecedented data on systems in which two asteroids revolve around each other a bit like Earth and its moon. The team already has its eyes on two sets of these duos – binary asteroids called 1991 VH and 1996 FG3, both of which have orbits that periodically bring them close to earth.

Once the group’s twin satellites meet up with those asteroids, the spacecraft will image them using visible light and infrared cameras, recording detailed information about how they move and what they’re made of.

“There are many theories of how binary asteroids form,” said Scheeres, “but we haven’t had the proper measurements to sort through them all and see which is correct. The Janus mission will do this and also help us better understand how primitive bodies in the solar system have formed and evolved over time.”

Janus is one of three selected finalist missions chosen through a NASA opportunity called Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration (SIMPLEx). Using small spacecraft – less than 400 pounds, or 180 kilograms in mass – SIMPLEx missions will conduct stand-alone planetary science investigations. Each of the three selected missions will have a maximum budget of $55 million. NASA plans to launch at least one of the selected finalists into space..

If NASA gives the Janus mission final approval, Lockheed Martin will build the twin spacecraft and manage their operations. Malin Space Science Systems will build the mission’s scientific instruments. Janus has a proposed launch date of 2022.

Members of the CU Boulder team are also co-investigators on NASA’s ongoing OSIRIS-Rex mission to study the asteroid Bennu. The Janus science team also includes CU Boulder alumnus Christine Hartzell at the University of Maryland and researchers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Planetary Science Institute, the University of Hawaii, and the Czech Academy of Sciences.