In a recent development, NASA has decided to call off the mission for its two Janus spacecraft, which were scheduled to embark on a journey to study two unexplored binary asteroids. The mission’s termination comes in the wake of launch delays, logistical challenges, and budgetary constraints. According to NASA’s announcement on Tuesday, the spacecraft, costing nearly $50 million, will now remain stored in a Lockheed Martin factory in Colorado.
The spacecraft was originally meant to launch as a secondary payload on the same rocket as NASA’s larger Psyche spacecraft, which is slated to visit a metal-rich asteroid, also named Psyche, for over two years of close-up observations. The planned launch, however, was delayed by more than a year due to issues discovered during software testing on the Psyche spacecraft. NASA formed an independent review board to examine the causes of the Psyche launch delay. The panel found problems with the spacecraft’s software and flaws in the pre-launch software testing plan. Moreover, the review board discovered that the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is in charge of the Psyche mission, was facing staffing and workforce issues, intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic. After the review, changes were implemented, and Psyche is now scheduled to lift off on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket in October. Regrettably, the Janus mission will not be onboard.
A Mission Lost
The Janus spacecraft was designed to visit two binary asteroids orbiting the Sun closer to Earth than the metallic asteroid Psyche. Due to the delay in launch, the target asteroids have now significantly shifted positions in the Solar System. Consequently, reaching them would require the Janus spacecraft to travel an extended distance from the Sun, preventing their solar arrays from generating sufficient power. Recognizing this obstacle, scientists on the Janus team and NASA management mutually agreed last year to separate the twin spacecraft from the Psyche launch. NASA did consider repurposing the Janus spacecraft to explore the asteroid Apophis, a space rock larger than the Empire State Building projected to approach Earth closely in 2029. While Apophis was initially thought to pose a potential risk of collision with Earth, scientists have since confirmed that there is no threat for at least the next century. However, this alternate mission was also ruled out due to constrained resources and a tight budget.
NASA’s planetary science budget is already stretched thin, with expenses mounting on several existing missions, such as the Mars Sample Return project and the Europa Clipper mission. Both these missions have seen cost escalations, adding to NASA’s budgetary pressures. The recent budget deal, brokered by President Biden and congressional Republicans, sets federal spending limits likely to impact NASA’s overall funding levels, further constraining the agency’s ability to allocate resources for new or alternative missions.
Looking to the Future
Even though the Janus spacecraft will remain Earth-bound for now, NASA’s other missions continue to push the boundaries of our understanding of the universe. The Psyche mission is one such mission that remains on track, aiming to explore a metal-rich asteroid that could provide vital insights into the formation of planetary cores. In fact, some scientists speculate that this asteroid, 16 Psyche, could contain as much as $700 quintillion worth of heavy metals. The delay of the Psyche spacecraft’s launch to October this year also gave the mission management an opportunity to address the issues highlighted by the independent review board. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which oversees the Psyche mission, took the feedback onboard and has since addressed staffing and workforce problems that were initially exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Learning From the Past
Although unfortunate, the case of the Janus mission offers important lessons for future mission planning. It underscores the vital importance of rigorous pre-launch testing, not only of hardware but also of software systems. The review board’s findings led to a realization of this and have sparked changes in mission management infrastructure. NASA’s decision to halt the Janus mission also shows the agency’s commitment to fiscal responsibility. With the cost of space missions often running into billions of dollars, it’s essential that resources are used efficiently and strategically. That sometimes means making the hard decision to cancel a mission despite the time, money, and effort already invested in it.
The Janus spacecraft may yet find a new purpose as discussions about potential alternatives continue. Although there are currently no definite plans to deploy these $50 million spacecraft, the possibility remains open. The Janus team and NASA management will continue to explore options for these spacecraft as circumstances and opportunities evolve. In conclusion, while the cancellation of the Janus mission marks a temporary pause, it by no means signals an end to NASA’s spirit of exploration and discovery. The space agency continues to work on a multitude of other missions that promise to expand our understanding of the universe and inspire future generations of space explorers.