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A team of scientists has proposed building an “interstellar interceptor”, a spacecraft capable of closing in on and approaching the next asteroid or comet to enter the planet. solar system.
So far, astronomers have spotted two such objects streaking through our star system: the cigar-shaped interstellar visitor ‘Oumuamua, which was first spotted in October 2017 and made headlines like a suspected alien probeand comet 2I/Borisov, which astronomers first spotted in August 2019.
Sending a probe to study interstellar objects would allow astronomers to photograph the surfaces of space rocks more accurately and potentially even take samples of gas escaping from them. comet intruders like 2I/Borisov. However, by the time telescopes detect such interstellar objects, it is too late to design, build and launch a spacecraft to pursue them, so these travelers end up sailing through our star system and taking most of their secrets with them. with them when they leave.
To circumvent this problem, the researchers wrote and submitted a proposal to the arXiv Preprint Database (opens in a new tab) November 3. Their study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, suggests that a space agency, such as NASA, should build and launch an interstellar interceptor that can wait patiently in distantEarth orbit. Then, once astronomers detect an incoming interstellar object, the probe can quickly lift off to intercept the invader on its way through the solar system.
Related: Could there be a link between the interstellar visitor ‘Oumuamua and unidentified aerial phenomena?
The best place to store an interstellar interceptor in space will be one of Earth’s Lagrange points, the researchers proposed. At these points in space, the gravitational pull of two large masses, in this case the Earth and the Sun, roughly cancel each other out, allowing small objects like satellites or asteroids to remain relatively fixed in a position, according to Nasa (opens in a new tab).
The team identified the Lagrange point L2, which also houses the 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 extraterrestrial space rocks may take through our cosmic neighborhood.
The proposed interstellar interceptor would wait in low-power mode – possibly for decades – until a suitable candidate is detected, at which time scientists could send the probe to the best possible location to cut off the intruder.
But we may not have to wait that long for the next visitor to call us.
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Astronomers already suspect that several interstellar objects cross the solar system unnoticed every year. The construction of new state-of-the-art telescopes, such as the Vera C. Rubin Observatory (opens in a new tab) in Chile, which is expected to be fully operational in early 2024, will allow scientists to spot more of these objects than ever before.
The authors of the new study predicted that when the new Chilean observatory is fully operational, it will detect between one and 10 interstellar objects each year. The researchers therefore concluded that there was a 95% chance that an ‘Oumuamua-type intruder could be detected and monitored by a potential interstellar interceptor within the next decade.
Related: Interstellar intruder 2I/Borisov may be the most pristine comet ever observed
According to the researchers, now is the perfect time to build an interstellar interceptor, as it could be launched and installed in orbit when we have the ability to spot more interstellar objects.
This isn’t the first time researchers have hatched plans to track down such visitors to the solar system.
In February, a separate group of researchers proposed that by launching a spacecraft around Earth, Venus and then Jupiter, scientists could launch a probe to catch up and intercept ‘Oumuamua in the far reaches of the solar system, known as the Oort cloud, which extends up to 100,000 times farther from the sun than Earth, according to Nasa (opens in a new tab). However, for this to work, the proposed mission would need to be launched by 2028, otherwise the mysterious object will be beyond our reach forever.
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