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NASA Asteroid Mission: North Logan’s Space Dynamics Lab lands radio contract

August 5, 2020 | abc4.com

NORTH LOGAN, Utah (ABC4 News) – The Space Dynamics Laboratory has been awarded a contract to produce two small satellite radios for a NASA near-earth asteroid mission. The radios provided by the lab will provide communications for small spacecraft being built for the mission.

The lab’s responsibility is for reliable communication on two miniature spacecraft.

The NASA mission is to study binary asteroids and is called Janus after the Roman god of duality. Binary asteroids are two asteroids that orbit a common center. They were first noticed in 1993. The asteroids the Janus mission will visit are in what is considered a space rubble pile. The space agency wants to study the formation of binary asteroids and study the evolutionary states of binary asteroids.

NORTH LOGAN, UTAH, August 5, 2020  — Space Dynamics Laboratory electrical engineer Craig Thompson is shown in this July 28, 2020, photo performing acceptance testing on one of the Iris radios at SDL in North Logan, Utah. The SDL-built Iris radios will provide communications for dual Lockheed Martin small spacecraft being built for NASA’s deep-space mission called Janus, to visit near-Earth asteroids. (Credit: Kelden Peterson/Space Dynamics Laboratory)

According to a press release sent to ABC4 News, making long distance calls from deep space is technologically challenging even when you are using large spacecraft. From small satellites like the kind NASA is sending to the rubble pile asteroids, it becomes exponentially more difficult.

Video of Binary Asteroid from NASA

The radios will weigh only 1.1 kilograms, (2.4 lbs.) and are about the size of a half a loaf of bread. The devices have to be radiation tolerant, last years, and be a fraction of the cost and a fraction of the weight of other radios that can do the same thing.

Fun space fact: The radios have to have advanced thermal management for navigation tracking. Thermal management with spacecraft is how all the parts are kept working in acceptable temperature ranges in space. It gets pretty cold out there.

The press release states: The Janus mission is targeted for launch in August 2022 and will travel more than 10 million kilometers to meet up with the pair of binary asteroids designated 1991 VH and 1996 FG3. The mission is being led by principal investigator Dr. Daniel Scheeres from the University of Colorado Boulder.

Images of the Binary Asteroids the spacecraft will visit

In deep space, communications for the two miniature spacecraft will be critical to the success of the Janus mission. The Iris radios are designed for just this task — to provide a unique communications architecture to relay valuable mission data through NASA’s Deep Space Network to the mission operations center at Lockheed Martin in Denver.

Developed and operated by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Deep Space Network is a global array of very large radio antennas that supports interplanetary spacecraft missions. According to NASA, the network also provides radar and radio astronomy observations that improve our understanding of the solar system and the larger universe.

“SDL is honored to be a part of this exciting mission under the leadership of Dr. Scheeres that will provide scientists with unprecedented information from small spacecraft about the workings of our solar system. Janus will add valuable insight on communication systems for future SmallSat deep-space programs,” said Tim Neilsen, SDL’s Iris program manager for the Janus mission. “SDL will build upon the flight-proven heritage of Iris radios and our decades-long legacy collaborating with NASA to ensure mission success.”

The Janus mission was selected as part of the NASA Small Innovative Missions for Planetary exploration program. The goal, to fill in knowledge gaps, as the space agency moves forward with human exploration of the moon and Mars.

North Logan’s Space Dynamics Lab has been involved in solving technical challenges for six decades.