If you’re one of those who still believes or hopes that the strange cigar-shaped interstellar comet/asteroid/hybrid ‘Oumuamua is actually a spaceship … or if you wish we could have gotten a closer look at a visitor from another star while it was near Earth – you may be in luck. A scientific group that formed just two weeks after ‘Oumuamua was discovered in 2017 says it’s not too late. Project Lyra has issued a detailed paper describing how ‘Oumuamua can be caught and analyzed with existing technology and when the best time for a launch will be. Can it be done? Will the robotic crew on ‘Oumuamua see it fast approaching and hit the gas – or whatever might be powering it?
“We now know such a mission, at least in principle, is achievable. The possible scientific return would be tremendous and might fundamentally alter our understanding of our place in the universe.”
Software developer Adam Hibberd, a volunteer with the Initiative for Interstellar Studies who designed the software to determine the optimal dates and trajectory for the mission and is the lead author on the paper to be published in Acta Astronautica, described in Wired how this will be a “this changes everything” project. ‘Oumuamua is currently moving away from Earth at a speed of 26.33±0.01 km/s (16.36 miles/sec) or 500 million miles per year, which will have it crossing the boundary into interstellar space in the late 2030s.
The Project Lyra model determined that a launched by the most powerful rocket -- either SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy or NASA’s soon-to-be-available Space Launch System – would start the process. The spacecraft would have to be equipped with a booster rocket that would be fired as it makes its turn around the Sun – giving an extra boost to the Sun’s gravitational assist. It would then swing around Jupiter, getting another gravitational boost. That would give it enough speed to catch up to ‘Oumuamua. Since Falcon Heavy is ready, what are we waiting for?
“Unfortunately we can’t just launch any year we like. To make missions feasible using current technology, we are reliant on Jupiter taking up a certain point in its 12-year orbit around the sun, and so the opportunities follow approximately a 12-year cycle.”
Ah, yes. The limits of current technology – the bane of those raised on Star Trek. Because a conventional spacecraft needs a gravitational acceleration boost, the optimal launch date for the Project Lyra craft would be in 2033, putting its catch-‘Oumuamua date sometime in 2048. The good news is, that gives the Project Lyra team some time to find ‘Oumuamua in interstellar space – not a trivial task either.
If existing technology can catch ‘Oumuamua, why not use it to catch the next interstellar object that comes past Earth instead? Again, that requires finding them early enough – a task space scientists have not yet mastered with existing telescopes. This highlights the importance of space research and development that’s not tied to government budgets or private space company profit margins. If we’re serious about space exploration, learning more about the universe, searching for other life forms, chasing interstellar objects and the like, we need to see them and their costs as an investment in the future of humanity.
Do we now?
Will we ever?