NASA has put the Janus asteroid mission on ice after launch delays rendered the twin probes’ target systems inaccessible.
Two small Janus spacecraft along with the agency’s larger Psyche spacecraft were originally supposed to launch atop a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket in August 2022. But NASA delayed the planned takeoff after issues arose with the Psyche flight program.
Since then, the Psyche team has corrected the ship, bringing the mission on track for launch next October. But that 14-month delay resulted in a change of course that put the science targets of the Janus probes–two binary systems of near-Earth asteroids–out of reach. The agency has now decided to suspend the ride probes.
“After considering the opportunities and requirements for alternative missions using the twin spacecraft, and the expected resources available to planetary science in the next few years, NASA has decided to forgo further work on the Janus mission,” according to NASA officials. wrote in Update on Tuesday (July 11).
“The project will complete the remaining contracted work on the two spacecraft and then prepare them for storage in the event that future funding may provide an opportunity to use the spacecraft,” they added.
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Janus is part of NASA’s SIMPLEx (Small, Innovative Planetary Exploration Missions) program. SIMPLEx aims to deliver big science results using small, inexpensive spacecraft that are launched as “rideshares” on rockets to carry larger initial payloads.
For example, the Psyche spacecraft has a dry (unfuelled) mass of approx 1400 kg (3086 lbs), while each Janus probe weighs only 36 kg (79 lbs). The total cost of the Psyche mission is $985 million, while the SIMPLEx projects are $55 million a piece.
“These low-cost missions serve as an ideal platform for technical and engineering innovation, and contribute to NASA’s goals for science research and technology development,” agency officials wrote in an update Tuesday, referring to the Simplex projects.
The Psyche mission will study the asteroid of the same name, a mineral-rich object 140 miles (220 kilometers) across in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Exotic space rocks could hold clues about the formation and evolution of rocky planets.
“Psychium may be the partial nucleus of a shattered mini-planet — a small world the size of a small city or country that is the first building block of a planet,” NASA officials said. Written in the task description. “If so, Psyche could provide a closer look at the interiors of terrestrial planets like Earth, which are usually hidden under layers of mantle and crust.”
The Psyche probe will reach its rocky space destination in August 2029, if all goes according to plan.
If it launched last summer, the spacecraft would have reached Psyche in 2026. It would have taken a trajectory that would allow each Janus probe to make flybys of a binary asteroid system — one on March 3, 2026, and the other on April 20 of that year.
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