A plan to chase down the 1st-known interstellar visitor

1st known interstellar visitor

In 2017, astronomers uttered a jubilant hurrah as they confirmed the first-known interstellar visitor - the first known visitor from another star system - to our solar system.

They named the object 'Oumuamua, which means first distant messenger (in Hawaiian). Such objects had been predicted beforehand. But we'd never managed to glimpse one. And scientists caught only a fleeting glimpse of 'Oumuamua, which was already speeding out of our solar system when they spotted it.

So they don't know for sure what 'Oumuamua was. A shard of an exoplanet? A comet spawned by another star? An alien spacecraft? 'Oumuamua is now outside the range of earthly telescopes, never to be seen again... or is it?

A team of scientists said this month (January 2022) they want to build a spacecraft to chase 'Oumuamua down. They claim could reach 'Oumuamua as early as 2047.

Project Lyra: Thinking outside the box

Scientists are developing Project Lyra with the goal of sending a spacecraft to reach interstellar visitors, and not just 'Oumuamua. It's worth noting that, so far, astronomers have only discovered one other interstellar visitor, which they call 21 Comet Borisov in 2019. The 21 stands for 2nd interstellar.

Borisov was very clearly a comet. And 'Oumuamua might be a comet, too. But the situation isn't as clear with 'Oumuamua; its true nature is still up for debate. So, in terms of a target for a spacecraft, 'Oumuamua would be an interesting place to start.

The Initiative for Interstellar Studies formed Project Lyra just 11 days after 'Oumuamua's discovery. The team has had the challenging task of assessing the feasibility of an exceedingly fast spacecraft. It would have to travel many times faster than the fastest spacecraft (the Voyager probes) yet built by earthlings.

Launch dates?

Depending on whether the spacecraft gets a boost at Jupiter or the sun, launch windows to 'Oumuamua begin in 2028 or 2030. Adam Hibberd of the Initiative for Interstellar Studies told EarthSky that one type of rocket could get travel times down to less than 20 years:

If nuclear thermal rockets were used, then their potential would be a game-changer and mission durations would be much lower. Of course, the sooner we launch, the sooner we get to 'Oumuamua and begin to start unraveling its mysteries. The longer we wait to mount a mission, the farther 'Oumuamua has receded from the sun, so the longer the total time-of-flight.

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