Small NASA satellites on asteroids stranded due to Psyche delay

NASA removed the Janus small twin satellites from the Psyche asteroid mission after launch delays meant Janus could not achieve its science goals.

NASA’s Psyche mission was due to launch this fall on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket to study a metal-rich asteroid thought to be the exposed core of a protoplanet orbiting the Sun between Mars and Jupiter. The Janus mission was to join the trip, allowing its twin small spacecraft to use the launch to visit and study a separate binary asteroid system.

However, the Psyche spacecraft software was not ready for this year’s launch window. While Psyche has survived the follow-up/cease check and is now working on an October 2023 launch, Janus has become a new victim of the launch delay and its side effects.

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The Psyche mission delay means the new launch period “can’t deliver two [Janus] spacecraft either to the original mission targets or to any suitable target to achieve their scientific goals,” NASA officials wrote in a statement released Nov. 18, so the two hitchhikers were removed from the flight.

However, this change does not necessarily mean the end of Janus, as evaluations of the mission design for potential future science targets are ongoing, according to NASA. Janus originally targeted the 1991 VH and 1996 FG3 binaries.

The twin spacecraft were designed and built by Lockheed Martin, and the Janus science team is led by the University of Colorado at Boulder. Janus is part of the larger NASA Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration (SIMPLEx) program for low-cost planetary science missions of small satellites.

An independent review following the Psyche delay revealed broader issues regarding workload and available workforce at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California. The report also prompted NASA to postpone the planned 2027 launch of the VERITAS Venus mission to 2031 to help address issues identified by the investigation.

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