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A team of scientists has proposed building an “interstellar interceptor,” a spacecraft capable of getting very close to the next asteroid or comet it strikes solar system.
So far, astronomers have spotted two such objects whizzing through our star system: the cigar-shaped interstellar visitor ‘Oumuamua, which was First sighted in October 2017 and made headlines as a suspected extraterrestrial probeand the comet 2I/Borisov, the astronomer First sighted in August 2019.
Sending a probe to study interstellar objects would allow astronomers to more accurately photograph the surfaces of space rocks and possibly even take samples of gases escaping Come Invaders like 2I/Borisov. However, by the time temporal telescopes detect such interstellar objects, it is too late to design, build and launch a spacecraft to track them, so these travelers end up sailing through our star system, taking most of their secrets with them when they leave.
To circumvent this problem, the researchers drafted and submitted a proposal arXiv preprint database (opens in new tab) on November 3rd.Earth Orbit. Then, once astronomers spot an inbound interstellar object, the probe can quickly fly to intercept the intruder as it makes its way through the solar system.
Related: Could there be a connection between the interstellar visitor ‘Oumuamua and unknown aerial phenomena?
The best place to store an interstellar interceptor in space will be one of Earth’s Lagrange points, the researchers suggested. At these points in space, the gravitational pull of two large masses, in this case the Earth and the Sun, roughly cancels out, allowing small objects like satellites or asteroids to remain relatively fixed in one position NASA (opens in new tab).
The team has identified the L2 Lagrange point, which is also the home of NASA James Webb Space Telescopeas the best place to park the spacecraft, as it will allow the probe to intercept a wide range of potential trajectories that alien space rocks could take through our cosmic neighborhood.
The proposed interstellar interceptor would wait in low-power mode – possibly for decades – until a suitable candidate is spotted, after which scientists could send the probe to the best possible location to intercept the intruder.
But we might not have to wait that long for the next visitor to come.
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Astronomers already suspect several interstellar objects traverse the solar system unnoticed each year. The construction of new state-of-the-art telescopes, such as Vera C. Rubin Observatory (opens in new tab) in Chile, which is expected to be fully operational in early 2024, will allow scientists to discover more of these objects than ever before.
The authors of the new study predicted that Chile’s new observatory, when fully operational, will discover between one and 10 interstellar objects each year. The researchers therefore concluded that there is a 95% chance that an ‘Oumuamua-like intruder can be detected and probed by a potential interstellar interceptor within the next decade.
Related: The interstellar invader 2I/Borisov may be the most pristine comet ever observed
Now is the perfect time to build an interstellar interceptor, the researchers argued, because it could be launched and installed in orbit if we have the ability to detect more interstellar objects.
It’s not the first time researchers have come up with plans to track down such solar system visitors.
In February, a separate group of researchers suggested that scientists could launch a probe by slinging a spacecraft around Earth, Venus, and then Jupiter Catch up and intercept ‘Oumuamua in the outer reaches of the solar system, the so-called Oort cloud, which is said to extend up to 100,000 times further from the sun than Earth NASA (opens in new tab). However, for this to work, the proposed mission would need to be launched by 2028, otherwise the mysterious object will be forever out of our reach.
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