NASA has decided not to launch two previously designed asteroids

Grow up / Artist’s impression of NASA’s two Janus spacecraft as they would appear in space.

Two small spacecraft were supposed to be traveling through the Solar System on the way to study an unknown asteroid, but after several years of development and nearly $50 million in investment, NASA announced Tuesday that the probe will be locked inside the Lockheed Martin factory in Colorado.

This is because the mission, called Janus, was supposed to be launched last year as a spin-off on the same rocket by NASA. the largest of the Psyche spacecraft, which will fly to the massive 225-kilometer asteroid—also known as Psyche—for more than two years of observation. Problems with software testing on the Psyche spacecraft prompted NASA administrators to delay the launch for more than a year.

An independent organization established to investigate the reasons for the delay in the launch of Psyche identified problems with the spacecraft’s software and weaknesses in the program testing system before the launch of Psyche. In an in-depth investigation, the evaluation team concluded that NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which oversees the Psyche mission, was overwhelmed by staffing and labor problems exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Psyche is now back on track for liftoff in October on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, but Janus is not aboard.

Janus was designed to fly to two asteroids close to each other—ones that orbit the Sun closer to Earth than the asteroid Psyche. Although the Psyche mission will still be able to reach its asteroid site and complete its scientific mission by launching this year, the asteroids being targeted by Janus will have changed positions in the Solar System significantly since last year. It is also not possible for the two Janus spacecraft to fly too far from the Sun for their solar arrays to generate enough power.

When it became clear that the two Janus asteroids were no longer viable, Janus team scientists and NASA administrators agreed last year to remove the two twins from the Psyche launch. Scientists also saw some work on the Janus spacecraft, which was already under construction and was weeks away from being sent to Florida to begin final preparations when NASA decided to delay the launch of Psyche.

One of the plans to reuse the Janus spacecraft was to send probes to fly by asteroid Apophis, a space rock larger than the Empire State Building that will pass 20,000 kilometers (32,000 miles) from Earth in 2029. For a while after it was discovered in 2004, scientists said there was a small chance Apophis could hit Earth in 2029 or later this century, but astronomers have now ruled out any risk of a 100-plus-year collision.

It came down to money

Ultimately, Janus was affected by delays in the Psyche project and budget constraints at NASA. The agency said Tuesday it had ordered the Janus crew to “prepare space for long-term storage.”

“NASA considered the various opportunities and requirements for other space missions, focusing on asteroid science,” said Eric Ianson, deputy director of NASA’s planetary science division, in response to questions from Ars. “However, the tight economy over the next few years made it impossible for the decision to pursue one of these options at this time.”

NASA’s planetary science budget has been strained by rising costs for several projects already on the books, including the multibillion-dollar Mars Sample Return project, which is still in its infancy. The sample recovery mission aims to recover samples of Martian rocks and bring them back to Earth for further analysis. The Europa Clipper mission, which is now undergoing its final mission next year, has also seen cost increases, according to Tom Statler, an employee of NASA’s planetary science division.

The debt budget agreement reached last month by President Biden and congressional Republicans set limits that would affect all NASA funding.

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