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A team of scientists has proposed building an “interstellar interceptor,” a spacecraft capable of a close approach to the next asteroid or comet to enter space. solar system.
So far, astronomers have seen two such objects whizzing through our galaxy: the cigar-shaped interstellar visitor ‘Oumuamua, which first spotted in October 2017 and made headlines as a suspected alien probeand comet 2I/Borisov, those astronomers first spotted in August 2019.
Sending a probe to examine interstellar objects could allow astronomers to more accurately photograph the surfaces of the space rocks and possibly even sample gases seeping out. comet invaders like 2I/Borisov. However, by the time telescopes detect such interstellar objects, it will be too late to design, build and launch a spacecraft to chase them down, so these travelers end up sailing through our galaxy, taking most of their secrets with them when they leave.
To get around this problem, researchers have prepared a proposal and submitted it to the arXiv preprint database (opens in new tab) on 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 Their study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, suggests that a space agency, such as NASA, should build and launch an interstellar interceptor that can wait patiently well into the future.Soil track. Once astronomers detect an incoming interstellar object, the probe can quickly fly off to intercept the intruder on its path through the solar system.
Related: Could there be a connection between the interstellar visitor ‘Oumuamua and unidentified aerial phenomena?
The best place to store an interstellar interceptor in space would be one of Earth’s Lagrange points, the researchers suggested. 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 such as satellites or asteroids to remain relatively fixed in one position, according to NASA (opens in new tab).
The team has identified the L2 Lagrange point, where NASA’s are also located James Webb Space Telescopeas the best place to park the spacecraft, as it allows the probe to intercept a wide variety of potential trajectories for alien space rocks to take through our cosmic environment.
The proposed interstellar interceptor would wait in low-power mode — possibly decades — until a suitable candidate is detected, after which scientists could direct the probe to the best possible location to cut off the intruder.
But maybe we won’t have to wait so long for the next visitor to ring the doorbell.
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Astronomers already suspect that there are multiple interstellar objects pass through the solar system unnoticed every year. The construction of new state-of-the-art telescopes, such as the Vera C. Rubin Observatory (opens in 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 Chile’s new observatory is fully operational, it will detect between one and 10 interstellar objects each year. The researchers therefore concluded that there is a 95% chance that an ‘Oumuamua-like invader could be detected and probed by a potential interstellar interceptor within the next decade.
Related: Interstellar intruder 2I/Borisov may be the most pristine comet ever observed
Now is the perfect time to build an interstellar interceptor, the researchers argued, because it could be launched and installed in orbit by the time we’re able to spot more interstellar objects.
It is not the first time that researchers have made plans to track down such visitors to the solar system.
In February, a separate group of researchers proposed that scientists could launch a probe by orbiting a spacecraft around Earth, Venus and then Jupiter. overtake and intercept ‘Oumuamua in the outer regions 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 new tab). However, for this to work, the proposed mission would need to launch by 2028 or the mysterious object will be forever out of our reach.