The University of Colorado Boulder and global security and aerospace company Lockheed Martin have partnered to lead the new Janus mission.

On 3 September, the project passed the Key Decision Point-C (KDP-C) milestone, highlighting that Nasa has approved the mission to move to the next phase of development, as well as establish the project’s official schedule and budget.

The dual-spacecraft Janus project costs less than $55m under Nasa’s Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration (SIMPLEx-2) programme.

It aims to study binary asteroids, which orbit around each other similar to the Earth and Moon.

CU Boulder Ann and H J Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences professor and Janus principal investigator Daniel Scheeres said: “Binary asteroids are one class of objects for which we don’t have high-resolution scientific data.

“Everything we have on them is based on ground observations, which don’t give you as much detail as being up close.”

CU Boulder is leading Janus and conducts the scientific analysis for the mission. Lockheed Martin will manage, build and operate the spacecraft.

Each of Janus’ twin spacecraft is designed to be the size of a carry-on suitcase.

The Janus team expects to launch two identical spacecraft in 2022. They will individually fly close to two pairs of binary asteroids.

Lockheed Martin Janus project manager Josh Wood said: “We see an advantage to be able to shrink our spacecraft.

“With technology advancements, we can now explore our solar system and address important science questions with smaller spacecraft.”

Last December, Lockheed Martin delivered Mars 2020 rover’s aeroshell to Nasa’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, US.