Scientists are developing the best way to intercept objects entering our solar system from interstellar space, which could provide a close-up view of objects originating from alien star systems, writes Vice.
Sending spacecraft to catch up with these interstellar objects, and possibly imaging them from distances of just a few hundred kilometers, could reveal important details about their composition, evolution and origins outside our solar system, a new study reports.
It’s only been five years since the discovery of the first known interstellar guest, a mysterious 91-meter-wide object known as ‘Oumuamua, which was spotted traveling through the solar system in October 2017. In addition to its absolute novelty, “Oumuamua” was something strange that puzzled scientists, especially because it suddenly increased its speed, and scientists still cannot explain it.
They offered many versions of the origin of the object, and Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb suggested that it could be part of alien technology. If an interceptor mission had been ready to pursue Oumuamua five years ago, we might have gotten answers to questions about the nature and origin of the object. To ensure we don’t miss our next chance to encounter such a strange object, scientists hope to develop a spacecraft that can wait until it is given the green light to pursue an interstellar target.
Now, a team led by Amir Siraj, a graduate student in astrophysics at Harvard University, has outlined some of the physical parameters of such a mission, including a potential timeline, spacecraft speed and optimal flyby distance.
The new study also notes that the Vera C. Rubin Legacy Survey of Space and Time Telescope (LSST) will be an excellent detector of interstellar objects, and could potentially detect dozens of such “guests.” An interception mission would need to quickly select one of these targets after it is identified and then launch within weeks to allow enough time to catch up.
The European Space Agency is already developing a comet interceptor to pursue an interstellar object, although the mission is more focused on meeting a comet from the outer regions of the solar system. The team of NASA scientists also presented the mission “Bridge to the Stars“, which aims to intercept an interstellar object, but this project is still at the concept stage.
If an official interstellar object interception mission is approved in the coming years, it would provide an unprecedented look at an object from beyond the solar system. Meanwhile, the catalog of known interstellar objects will only expand, as observatories of the next generation are already scanning the sky for their presence.