science

A tiny satellite with a solar sail could be built rapidly to catch interstellar objects


Experts have tried to figure out what ‘Oumuamua – the mysterious object that flew into our solar system from outside of it – is, since it was discovered in 2017. 

And now a new study suggests a tiny satellite equipped with solar sails could be built in short order to catch and observe other objects just like that.

The research notes that a combination of a cube satellite and a lightsail – both technologies that have already been used for space exploration – could easily rendezvous with a future interstellar object (ISO).

‘Current technology work suggests such a mission could fly and reach an ISO moving through the solar system within this decade,’ the researchers wrote in the study’s abstract.

A new study suggests a tiny satellite could be built in short order to catch and study other objects like 'Oumuamua

A new study suggests a tiny satellite could be built in short order to catch and study other objects like ‘Oumuamua

A combination of a cube satellite and a lightsail - both technologies that have already been used for space exploration - could easily rendezvous with a future interstellar object

A combination of a cube satellite and a lightsail – both technologies that have already been used for space exploration – could easily rendezvous with a future interstellar object 

The study suggests that the light-sail powered cube satellite could be sent into space ahead of time, essentially 'parked' near the sun until the orbit of the ISO is determined

The study suggests that the light-sail powered cube satellite could be sent into space ahead of time, essentially ‘parked’ near the sun until the orbit of the ISO is determined

Once it's found, the trajectory of the sail could be targeted to the perihelion - the point in the orbit at which it's closes to the sun - to figure out the right velocity to intercept the ISO

Once it’s found, the trajectory of the sail could be targeted to the perihelion – the point in the orbit at which it’s closes to the sun – to figure out the right velocity to intercept the ISO

The researchers believe this kind of mission could happen 'within the current decade'

The researchers believe this kind of mission could happen ‘within the current decade’

‘Such a mission might enable the first encounter with an ISO to allow for imaging and spectroscopy, measurements of size and mass, potentially giving a unique information about the object’s origin and composition.’

The researchers believe this kind of mission could happen ‘within the current decade.’ 

So far, only two ISOs have been discovered – ‘Oumuamua and Comet 2I/Borisov, but researchers in Brazil believe a fireball that flew over the country in May could have been a third.  

The study suggests that the light-sail powered cube satellite could be sent into space ahead of time, essentially ‘parked’ near the sun until the orbit of the ISO is determined.

Once it’s found, the trajectory of the sail could be targeted to the perihelion – the point in the orbit at which it’s closes to the sun – to figure out the right velocity to intercept the ISO.

It would happen in four phases: ‘Earth to perihelion, ISO orbit alignment, around the Sun to solar system escape velocity, approach and intercept with the ISO.’

The sail craft would have an escape velocity of more than six astronomical units (AU) per year, or roughly 558 million miles. 

‘This would permit rapid response to a new ISO discovery and an intercept within 10 AU from the sun,’ the researchers added.

The distance between the Earth and the sun is one astronomical unit, or approximately 93 million miles. 

If it were a five-year mission, the light sail-powered cube sat could catch and study the ISO, while a ten-year mission could even bring back a sample, the researchers added.

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Both technologies – cubesats and light-sails – have been proven in space.

The Mars Cube One, launched in March 2018, was one of the first interplanetary small satellites.

Conversely, lightsail missions in 2013 – from Earth to Venus – and in 2021 – in Earth orbit – have already taken place.  

Given the close proximity to the sun, the solar sail would need to be able to manage heat.

If it were aluminum coated with Kapton, it could withstand the heat from the sun due to the high melting point of aluminum (approximately 930 Kelvin) if it were within 0.15 AU of the sun.

The benefits of such a spacecraft would not only allow astronomers to better study ISOs and potentially even learn their origin, but it could also be used for planetary defense, planet formation and learning more about the solar system, among other benefits.

‘The scientific return from such investigations is invaluable, as comparative studies between an ISO sample return with solar system asteroid and comet sample returns can help us understand the conditions and processes of solar system formation and the nature of the interstellar matter,’ the researchers wrote in the study.

‘With many new ISOs expected the significance of such an investigation is of the highest priority.’ 

The findings have been published in the pre-print journal arXiv and can be read here.  

Our first interstellar visitor sailed past Earth at at 97,200mph in 2017, but what exactly was Oumuamua?

A cigar-shaped object named ‘Oumuamua sailed past Earth at 97,200mph (156,428km/h) in October.

It was first spotted by a telescope in Hawaii on 19 October, and was observed 34 separate times in the following week. 

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It is named after the Hawaiian term for ‘scout’ or ‘messenger’ and passed the Earth at about 85 times the distance to the moon.

It was the first interstellar object seen in the solar system, and it baffled astronomers.

Initially, it was thought the object could be a comet. 

However, it displays none of the classic behavior expected of comets, such as a dusty, water-ice particle tail.

The asteroid is up to one-quarter mile (400 meters) long and highly-elongated – perhaps 10 times as long as it is wide.

That aspect ratio is greater than that of any asteroid or asteroid observed in our solar system to date.

But the asteroid’s slightly red hue — specifically pale pink — and varying brightness are remarkably similar to objects in our own solar system.

Around the size of the Gherkin skyscraper in London, some astronomers were convinced it was piloted by aliens due to the vast distance the object traveled without being destroyed – and the closeness of its journey past the Earth. 

Alien hunters at SETI – the Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence based at Berkeley University, California said there was a possibility the rock was ‘an alien artefact’.

But scientists from Queen’s University Belfast took a good look at the object and said it appears to be an asteroid, or ‘planetesimal’ as originally thought. 

Researchers believe the cigar-shaped asteroid had a ‘violent past’, after looking at the light bouncing off its surface. 

They aren’t exactly sure when the violent collision took place, but they believe the lonely asteroid’s tumbling will continue for at least a billion years.



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