Artist’s impression of the interstellar asteroid `Oumuamua
Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

The UK-based Initiative for Interstellar Studies (i4is) has taken a look at how best to get up close and personal with interstellar asteroid A/2017 U1.

This interstellar interloper is tagged as being more than 1,310 feet (400 meters) in diameter and is currently travelling at 44 kilometers per second with respect to the Sun. That’s much faster than any human-made object to date.

Hidden secrets

“What can be more exciting than chasing this object with a spacecraft and making observations from a close distance? What secrets are hidden on this visitor from our galaxy? The velocity of the object makes it challenging to reach but this challenge might lead to new, innovative mission concepts,” explains the i4is study group.

Credit: Initiative for Interstellar Studies (i4is)

Their findings have been published by way of Project Lyra: Sending a Spacecraft to 1I/’Oumuamua (former A/2017 U1), the Interstellar Asteroid

Lyra is the star constellation from which the interstellar asteroid came from.

High-speed interception

The opportunity to directly study material from other star systems is the quest. But can such objects be intercepted? The challenge of reaching the object within a reasonable timeframe is formidable due to its high heliocentric hyperbolic excess velocity.

Project Lyra participants took a look at different mission durations and their velocity requirements, as well as intercept trajectories.

Several technology options are outlined in their work, ranging from a close solar Oberth Maneuver using chemical propulsion, and the more advanced options of solar and laser sails.

Viable options

“To maximize science return decelerating the spacecraft at ’Oumuamua is highly desirable, due to the minimal science return from a hyper-velocity encounter,” the study paper notes. “It is concluded that although reaching the object is challenging, there seem to be viable options based on current and near-term technology.”

The discovery of the first interstellar object entering our solar system is an exciting event and could be the chance of a lifetime or several lifetimes.

Credit: Breakthrough Initiatives

Important result

The i4is study group concludes that a mission to the object will stretch the boundary of what is technologically possible today. “A mission using conventional chemical propulsion system would be feasible using a Jupiter flyby to gravity assist into a close encounter with the Sun. Given the right materials, solar sail technology or laser sails could be used,” they report.

An important result of the i4is analysis is that the value of a laser beaming infrastructure from the Breakthrough Initiatives’ Project Starshot “would be the flexibility to react quickly to future unexpected events, such as sending a swarm of probes to the next object like 1I/‘Oumuamua.” Indeed, if such an infrastructure would be in place today, “intercept missions could have reached 1I/‘Oumuamua within a year.”

Credit: Initiative for Interstellar Studies (i4is)

Long-term ambition

The long-term ambition of the Initiative for Interstellar Studies (i4is) is to enable both robotic and human exploration and colonization of the nearby stars. “However, we have to start with a plan, that builds from incremental steps year on year and takes us in the right direction and with growth as a key,” their website explains.

To that end, future work within Project Lyra will focus on analyzing the different mission concepts and technology options in more detail and to down select two to three promising concepts for further development.

Resources

To read the Project Lyra study paper, go to:

https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1711/1711.03155.pdf

More information on the Initiative for Interstellar Studies (i4is) can be found at:

https://i4is.org/

Lastly, take a look at this animation of `Oumuamua passing through the Solar System, issued by the European Southern Observatory (ESO), published on November 20, 2017. This animation shows the path of the interstellar asteroid 1I/2017 (‘Oumuamua) through the Solar System. Observations with ESO’s Very Large Telescope and others have shown that this unique object is dark, reddish in color and highly elongated.

Go the video at:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=25&v=Yzha7ji3lsM

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