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CU Boulder wants to study asteroids and NASA will consider it

CU'S Janus mission wants to send small satellites into space to study binary asteroids.

BOULDER, Colo. — A team from CU Boulder wants to get a whole lot closer to space rocks astronomers can only see through telescopes. NASA could make that happen.

Recently, the space agency chose CU’s Janus mission as one of three finalists for a program to send small satellites into space to study different phenomena.

CU chose asteroids, specifically binary asteroids.

“It’s not just one asteroid in orbit around the sun, going round and round,” said Dan Scheeres, a professor in the Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences and leader of the project. “It’s actually two little asteroids orbiting around each other, that whole system going around the sun." 

Scheeres equates it to the moon orbiting the earth, but on a much smaller scale.

He says 15% of asteroids orbiting the sun are binary asteroids, but they’re something of a puzzle.

“We haven’t quite figured out yet how they form, why a single asteroid might become two asteroids orbiting around each other,” Scheeres said. "That’s one of the questions we’re trying to address with the Janus mission.”

His team’s proposal involves the construction of twin satellites about the size of your luggage but weighing more than you can take on a plane without paying extra.

Those satellites would then do a fly-by of the binary asteroids, taking pictures and recording information about how they move and what they’re made of.

“When we study these asteroids, we're actually studying this material that's in a really weird state,” Scheeres said. “The thing is, that’s the same sort of situation that was going on way at the beginning of the solar system. So, one of the things we want to do when we study these binary asteroids is to get some insight into how these materials behave in this extreme state. A state we can't recreate on earth.”

First, though, the team has a year to develop a detailed blueprint of the mission to present to NASA.

“I think it’s ours to lose,” Scheeres said. “That means we have to nail everything and give NASA complete confidence we can push ahead and actually construct these spacecraft, launch them, fly them.”

“There are other missions, one goes to Mars, one goes to the moon, that are part of the same program,” Scheeres said. “NASA may decide to fund all of us. They may decide to fund one of us. So, there’s some competition as well.”

If NASA chooses CU’s proposal, Lockheed Martin would build the satellites. They would launch in 2022 and arrive at their target about four years later.

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