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binary satellites for asteroids

Pair of satellites to be launched in 2022 to study binary asteroids

Image credit: Lockheed Martin

Two small satellites will be sent to two pairs of binary asteroids to study how these curious space objects evolve and burst apart over time.

A binary asteroid is a system of two asteroids that orbit around each other in space, much like the Earth and the Moon.

A team composed of researchers from The University of Colorado Boulder and Lockheed Martin have been given approval by Nasa to launch a relatively cheap $55m (£43m) mission to study these phenomena under the space agency’s SIMPLEx program

Dubbed the Janus mission, the small satellites will study these asteroid couplets in never-before-seen detail.

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 Professor Daniel Scheeres, principle investigator for Janus.

“Binary asteroids are one class of objects for which we don’t have high-resolution scientific data,” Scheeres said. “Everything we have on them is based on ground observations, which don’t give you as much detail as being up close.”

Lockheed Martin’s Janus project manager Josh Wood said that technology advancements allow for greater exploration our solar system and address important science questions with smaller spacecraft.

The mission will rendezvous with two binary pairs – 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.

In April, an asteroid around 2km wide hurtled passed the Earth at its closest approach giving scientists an unprecedented opportunity to study it in detail.

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