Scientists devise plans to intercept an interstellar object

Scientists devise plans to intercept an interstellar object

We finally have the technological means to detect interstellar objects. We’ve discovered two in the past few years, ‘Oumuamua and 2I/Borisov, and there are undoubtedly more out there.

So there was a lot of interest in developing a mission that could visit you once we spotted you. But what would such a mission look like?

Now, a draft paper by a team of mostly American scientists has attempted to answer that question, bringing us one step closer to launching such a mission.

Part of what makes an interstellar visitor mission interesting is that interstellar visitors are so weird. Borisov behaved like a typical comet entering the solar system, but ‘Oumuamua was a different beast altogether.

It never developed a comet tail, as many scientists expected. It also showed acceleration that didn’t seem to be explained by radiation or any other means, leading some prominent scientists to suggest it might even have been an extraterrestrial probe.

The best way to combat such fanciful claims is to investigate them closely. And to do that, we need to have a mission that can catch it. But first we would need to see it, and astronomers are already working on that.

The Vera C Rubin Observatory’s Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST) will be able to discover between 1 and 10 interstellar objects about the size of Oumuamua each year, according to the authors’ calculations.

This is ample opportunity to find the right candidate. But what criteria should this candidate meet?

Most importantly, “Where did it come from?” While there is no “best” angle from which an interstellar object (ISO) can approach, it does make a difference depending on where we store the “interstellar interceptor” (ISI).

According to the paper, the best place to do this is most likely the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrange point. It has more than one benefit – first, very little fuel is required to stay on station, and each ISI may have to wait in storage mode for years.

Once in action, it needs to react quickly, and another resident of L2 could help it do that.

NASA’s Time-domain Spectroscopic Observatory (TSO) is a 1.5m telescope that is planned to be deployed at the L2 Lagrange point, along with more popular telescopes such as the JWST.

For all of its amazing ability to capture spectacular images, JWST has one significant weakness – it’s slow. It can take 2-5 days to focus on a specific object, making it useless when tracking ISOs. TSO, on the other hand, only takes a few minutes.

It could be supplemented by another telescope, the planned Near Earth Object Surveyor, which is to be located at the L1 Lagrange point of the Earth-Moon system.

Combined with the TSO, these two fast-reacting telescopes should be able to acquire images from any ISO entering the inner Solar System that is not directly on a trajectory along the L1-L2 baseline.

Once recognized, the next task is to get to the ISO. Some, unfortunately, will be unattainable from the point of view of orbital mechanics.

But the authors calculate there is an 85 percent chance that an ISI stored at L2 can find a suitable object the size of ‘Oumuamua within 10 years.

So once we can recognize ISOs, we basically just have to wait patiently for the right opportunity.

Once the ISI reaches ISO, it can begin close-up observations, including a full spectroscopic map of both natural and man-made materials, which could help settle the debate over whether such objects are alien-made probes.

It could also monitor outgassing, which could explain the mysterious forces acting on ‘Oumuamua.

Undoubtedly, there are many more exciting things scientists want to know about the first interstellar object we are visiting.

But from the calculations in this paper, there will be many ways to do this and collect a lot of data if we do. Then it’s time to get into the planning phase!

This article was originally published by Universe Today. Read the original article.

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