We finally have the technology to detect interstellar objects. We’ve discovered two in the past few years, Oumuamua and 2I/Borisov, and there are undoubtedly more out there.
As such, there was a lot of interest in developing a mission that could visit one once it was discovered. But what would such a task look like?
Now, a draft paper from a team of primarily American scientists has taken a step forward in answering this question and has pushed us one step further to launch such a mission.
Part of what makes the Interstellar Visitor mission so interesting is that the Interstellar Visitors are so weird. Borisov behaved like a typical comet once it entered the solar system, but Oumuamua was an entirely different beast.
It never developed a comet’s tail, as many scientists predicted. It also showed an acceleration that did not appear to have been accounted for by radioactive or other means, leading some prominent scientists to claim that it may have been a space probe.
The best way to combat such fanciful claims is to examine them closely. And to do that, we must have a mission that can catch up. But first, we have to see it, and astronomers are already working on it.
The Vera Sea Robin Space and Time Observatory (LSST) Legacy Survey will be able to detect 1-10 interstellar objects roughly the same size as Oumuamua each year, according to the authors’ calculations.
There are plenty of opportunities to find the right candidate. But what criteria should this candidate meet?
Most importantly, it would be, “Where does it come from?” Although there is no “best” angle for an interstellar object (ISO) to approach, it does make a difference based on where we store the “interstellar intercept” (ISI).
According to the paper, the best place for this is probably the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrange point. It has more than one advantage – first, there is very little fuel needed to stay in the station, and any ISI may need to wait in stowed position for years.
Once he is called to work, he must react quickly, and another resident of L2 can help him to do so.
The NASA Time Domain Spectral Observatory (TSO) is a 1.5-meter telescope planned to locate at the L2 Lagrange point, along with the most famous telescopes such as JWST.
For all its amazing ability to take amazing photos, JWST has one major weakness – it’s slow. Focusing on a specific object can take 2-5 days, which makes it useless when tracing ISO files. On the other hand, TSO takes only a few minutes.
It can be supplemented with another telescope, the planned NEO, which is intended to reside at the L1 Lagrange point of the Earth-Moon system.
When combined with TSO, these two highly responsive telescopes should be able to take images of any ISO entering the inner Solar System that is not directly on a path along the L1-L2 baseline.
Once detected, accessing the ISO is the next task. Some, unfortunately, will be elusive from the point of view of orbital mechanics.
But the authors calculate that there is an 85 percent chance that the ISI stored in L2 will be able to find a suitable object of interest the size of ‘Oumuamua’ within 10 years.
So, basically, once we can detect ISOs, it’s just a matter of waiting patiently for the right opportunity.
Once the ISI reaches ISO, it can then begin to observe closely, including a full spectral map of both natural and synthetic materials, which may help settle the debate over whether these objects are alien-made sensors.
He could also monitor any gas release that could explain the mysterious forces acting on ‘Oumuamua.
There is undoubtedly a lot of exciting things that scientists want to understand about the first interstellar object we visit.
But from the calculations in this paper, there will be a lot of opportunities to do that and a lot of data to collect when we do. Time to move on to the planning stages, then!
This article was originally published by Universe Today. Read the original article.
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