Two small spacecraft now sailing through the solar system were supposed to be on their way to study unexplored asteroids, but after several years of development and nearly $50 million in expenditure, NASA announced Tuesday that the two probes will remain sealed inside the Lockheed Martin plant in Colorado.
That’s because the mission, named Janus, was supposed to launch last year as a backpack on the same rocket with NASA’s much larger Psyche spacecraft, which will fly to a 140-mile-wide (225-kilometer) asteroid rich in minerals — also named Psyche — for more than Two years of close observations. Problems with software testing on the Psyche spacecraft prompted NASA managers to delay the launch by more than a year.
An independent review panel created to analyze the reasons for the delay in launching Psyche identified issues with the spacecraft’s software and weaknesses in the program’s pre-launch testing plan for Psyche. Digging deeper, the review panel determined that NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the Psyche mission, was saddled with personnel and workforce problems exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Psyche is now back on track for launch in October on the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, but Janus won’t be on board.
Janus is designed to fly into two binary asteroids – consisting of two bodies close together – orbiting the Sun near Earth from the metallic asteroid Psyche. While the Psyche mission can still reach its asteroid destination and accomplish its science mission with its launch this year, the asteroids targeted by Janus will change their positions in the solar system a lot since last year. The two Janus spacecraft can no longer reach them without flying away from the sun so that their solar arrays can generate enough power.
When it became clear that the two Janus target asteroids were no longer reachable, scientists on the Janus team and NASA management agreed last year to remove the twin spacecraft from the Psyche launch. Scientists looked at other uses for the suitcase-sized Janus spacecraft, which had already been built and was weeks away from being shipped to Florida to begin final launch preparations when NASA decided to delay the launch of Psyche.
One of the ideas for reusing the Janus spacecraft was to send the probes to fly by the asteroid Apophis, a space rock larger than the Empire State Building that will encroach within 2,029 miles (32,000 kilometers) of our planet’s surface in 2029. For a while soon after its discovery in 2004, Scientists have said there is a small chance Apophis will collide with Earth in 2029 or later this century, but astronomers have now ruled out any risk of a collision over the next 100 years.
It’s about money
In the end, Janus fell victim to Psyche mission delays and tight budget constraints at NASA. On Tuesday, the agency said it had directed the Janus team to “prepare the spacecraft for long-term storage.”
“NASA looked at various potential opportunities and requirements for alternative missions using the dual spacecraft, with a primary focus on asteroid science,” said Erik Ianson, deputy director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, in a written response to questions from Ars. “However, limited resources in the next few years led to a decision not to pursue one of these alternatives for the time being.”
NASA’s planetary science budget is strained by rising costs on several missions already on the books, including the multi-billion dollar Mars sample return project, which is still in an early stage of development. The sample return mission aims to retrieve samples of Martian rocks and return them to Earth for analysis. The Europa Clipper mission, which is now undergoing final assembly for launch next year, has also seen cost increases, according to Tom Statler, an official in NASA’s Planetary Science Division.
President Biden’s debt-ceiling budget deal last month and congressional Republicans set limits on federal spending likely affect overall funding levels for NASA.
“We’re looking forward to a challenging time, and everyone should be aware of that,” Statler said Tuesday at a meeting of the Small Bodies Advisory Group, which represents the asteroid science community. “The budget is definitely not conducive to looking at new beginnings (for planetary science missions) right now.”
NASA hasn’t ruled out using dual asteroid probes on a future mission if funding becomes available, but Ianson said, “There are no current plans to use these spacecraft.”
According to Ianson, NASA has spent nearly $50 million on the Janus mission since the agency formally approved its development in 2020. This funding represents the majority of the original project’s $55 million cost cap.
It’s unusual, but not unprecedented, for NASA to cancel a science mission after spending a ton of money, but terminations are usually triggered by cost overruns or insurmountable technical issues with the spacecraft. In the case of Janus, engineers were evaluating an issue that was revealed during ground testing of the spacecraft’s electrical thrusters. Concerns about the propulsion system restricted alternative missions available for NASA to review after the launch delay from last year, but the Janus science team was confident that the issue wasn’t an issue for a potential backup mission to Apophis.
NASA selected the Janus mission proposal from a science team led by principal investigator Dan Sheres of the University of Colorado. Janus was part of NASA’s SIMPLEx program, which stands for Small, Innovative Planetary Exploration Missions. SIMPLEx was created to provide NASA funding for relatively low-cost robotic missions to explore the solar system, taking advantage of the trend in smaller spacecraft, miniature instruments, and flight launch opportunities.
Two other SIMPLEx missions scheduled by NASA at the same time as Janus are moving toward launch. One of the missions, called the Lunar Trailblazer, will launch a trip to the moon using a commercial lander from Intuitive Machines. The other project is called EscaPADE, which will fly to Mars to study the Red Planet’s atmosphere and magnetosphere.
NASA assumes minor planetary science missions are riskier than more expensive solar system probes, such as the Psyche mission, which has a budget of more than $1.1 billion after delaying launch by one year.
Under its new flight plan, the Psyche spacecraft will fly by Mars for a gravity-assisted maneuver to launch into the asteroid belt, where it will rendezvous with and enter orbit around the asteroid Psyche in August 2029. Scientists hypothesize that the asteroid Psyche could be the remnant of an iron-nickel core of a failed planet. Destroy it in the chaotic ancient solar system.
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