An asteroid from planetary system 1I/2017 U1 (Oumuamua) has been spotted inside our own solar system, which makes it the first time a significant object has visited us that has been confirmed to originate from interstellar space. What’s more, The Institute For Interstellar Studies (i4is) believes that there may be a chance of landing on it—or even of catching it. In fact, their research has been published on arXiv.
More specifically, they argue that “The first definitely interstellar object 1I/’Oumuamua (previously A/2017 U1) observed in our solar system provides the opportunity to directly study material from other star systems. Can such objects be intercepted?” The object is accelerating at approximately 86,000 miles per hour, although it is likely to slow to about 59,000 miles per hour for a time.
NASA’s Voyager 1 is speeding out of our solar system at approximately 38,000 mph; however, there probably isn’t enough time for a craft to get up to that speed in time (it took Voyager years to do so). New Horizons achieved a speed of 36,373 mph from launch, although this would not be adequate to be able to catch up with ‘Oumuamua. However, i4is argues that humankind could very well have the required technology and capability within the next five to thirty years. For instance, utilizing chemical propulsion and the gravity of Jupiter could make catching up quite possible indeed. Keeping enough propellant on board could be difficult, but a heavy-lift rocket such as SpaceX’s BFR or NASA’s SLS should be capable of managing these issues.
The paper goes on to read, “One potential mission architecture is to make use of SpaceX’s Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) and their in-space refueling technique with a launch date in 2025. To achieve the required hyperbolic excess (at least 30 km/s [108,000km/h]) a Jupiter flyby combined with a close solar flyby (down to 3 solar radii), nicknamed ‘solar fryby’ is envisioned.” If launched in 2025, a launch speed of 157,000 mph would be able to reach Oumuamua in 2039. By then, the object would be approximately 85 AU (1 AU is the distance from the Earth to the Sun). If a launch speed of 90,000 miles per hour could be attained, it would take until around 2051 to intercept the object 155 AU away. I4is indicates that the craft would likely slam into the asteroid since stopping would be virtually impossible, but a mother spacecraft could be utilized to observe at close range.
SpaceX’s BFR could aid in reaching ‘Oumuamua? SpaceX
However, solar or laser sail technology could be utilized in a fashion similar to the Breakthrough Starshot project; a tiny probe is already likely to reach our nearest star, Proxima Centauri. If a 2.74-megawatt laser beam was used in 2021, ‘Oumuamua could be reached in merely seven years. It’s important to note that the probe would only be one gram in size, but if a bigger laser was utilized then the probe could be scaled up significantly: “However, with such a laser beaming infrastructure in place, hundreds or even thousands of probes could be sent. Such a swarm-based or distributed architecture would allow for gathering data over a larger search volume without the limitations of a single monolithic spacecraft.”
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