Scientists have figured out how to catch up and study the first known interstellar asteroid 'Oumuamua. Project Lyra envisions the launch of a probe for February 2028, four years to perform gravity maneuvers near Earth, Venus, and Jupiter, and finally reaching 'Oumuamua around 2050-2054.
What do we know about Oumuamua?
Object 1I/Oumuamua was discovered on October 19, 2017, as a result of analysis of data obtained by the Pan-STARRS Panoramic and Rapid Response Telescope System, which is primarily designed to search for near-Earth asteroids. ‘Oumuamua was originally thought to be a comet but was later classified as an asteroid.
It was moving too fast for a simple asteroid, and with acceleration, but it did not leave a gaseous tail, which is considered a sign of icy comets from the outer part of the system. Its brightness also did not change, which is typical for asteroids, and not for comets.
Comet Borisov, the first interstellar comet, was discovered by amateur astronomer Gennady Borisov in August 2019 using a 65-cm telescope of his own design.
The extrasolar origin of ‘Oumuamua and Comet Borisov makes them extremely interesting objects to study, but they transit through the solar system and were already detected on the departure trajectory, it is quite difficult to catch up with them.
Scientists are especially intrigued by the possibility of an artificial origin of such objects, which may be hinted at by the extremely elongated shape of Oumuamua.
Since the object can no longer be properly studied through telescopes, there is only one way to understand its origin. The published document describes a mission called Project Lyra to send a probe from Earth that can catch up with ‘Oumuamua and find out its more about its structure.
Catching up with Oumuamua: Project Lyra
The document contains a proposal to organize an updated mission, which should start in February 2028, and spend four years on acceleration using gravitational maneuvers – to use the so-called Oberth effect.
If the impulse of the device’s engine is given at maximum approach to a gravitating body, then part of the energy can be taken away from this body and thereby additionally disperse the apparatus.
Gravity maneuvers, or Oberth maneuvers, in this case, should be performed twice at the Earth and once at Venus and Jupiter, until at last the device acquires sufficient speed and reaches the vicinity of ‘Oumuamua in 2050-2054.
This is far from the first attempt to plot a course to ‘Oumuamua, but most previous attempts have focused on using the Oberth maneuver to fly around the Sun. This tactic involves the spacecraft falling into a gravity well and as it falls, it uses its thrusters to increase its acceleration.
The disadvantage of boosting with the help of the Sun is that to protect the probe from powerful solar radiation, one would have to use a complex and heavy shield, like the one currently carried by the American Parker Solar Probe, designed to study the outer solar corona.
While this maneuver looks great on paper, it has never been done before and therefore has a low level of technological readiness.
Another advantage of the maneuver with Jupiter is the final speed of the spacecraft’s arrival at ‘Oumuamua, which will be much lower than that of the spacecraft using the maneuver with the Sun – 18 km/s versus 30 km/s.
This will give the Lyra project more time to study the interstellar asteroid from a flyby trajectory. Based on a launch window of 2028, the researchers determined that the craft could catch up to Oumuamua by 2054.
What if we find another similar object?
Another option could be, of course, to simply wait until another object similar to ‘Oumuamua is found and take the time to organize an expedition to it.
After all, every year, an estimated seven interstellar wanderers can fly through our solar system. It is even possible that some of the comets from the outer Oort cloud are actually of extrasolar origin.
However, according to the same article, it would be unwise to wait for such an event, because the second interstellar object ever discovered – comet 2I / Borisov 2019 – resembles small bodies already found in the solar system.
This makes ‘Oumuamua a more unique object, and it is unclear what the likelihood of a re-encounter with a similar celestial body in the future is. The possible scientific return from such a mission makes the ‘Oumuamua expedition an opportunity that should not be missed.
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• Dickinson, D. (2022, January 18). Interstellar probe proposed to explore the Solar Neighborhood. Sky & Telescope.
• Hibberd, A., Hein, A., Eubanks, M., & Kennedy III, R. (2022, January 11). Project Lyra: A mission to 1I/’OUMUAMUA without Solar Oberth manoeuvre. arXiv.org.
• Tangermann, V. (2022, January 20). Scientists propose mission to catch up with mysterious interstellar object. Futurism.
• Williams, M. (2022, January 21). If launched by 2028, a spacecraft could catch up with Oumuamua in 26 years. Universe Today.