Project Lyra develops concepts for reaching the interstellar asteroid 'Oumuamua with a spacecraft, based on near-term technologies. But what is an interstellar asteroid?
On October 19th 2017, the University of Hawaii’s Pan-STARRS 1 telescope on Haleakala discovered a fast-moving object near the Earth, initially named A/2017 U1. It is now designated as 1I/’Oumuamua. This object was found to be not bound to the solar system. It has a velocity at infinity of ~26 km/s and an incoming radiant (direction of motion) near the solar apex in the constellation Lyra. Due to the non-observation of a tail in the proximity of the Sun, the object does not seem to be a comet but an asteroid. More recent observations from the Palomar Observatory indicate that the object is reddish, similar to Kuiper belt objects. This is a sign of space weathering.
When will such an object visit us again? In 10 years, 100 years, 1000? We do not know. This could be the only opportunity in a lifetime, or even in a 100 lifetimes to observe an interstellar visitor close by. As 1I/‘Oumuamua is the nearest macroscopic sample of interstellar material, likely with an isotopic signature distinct from any other object in our solar system, the scientific returns from sampling the object are hard to overstate. Detailed study of interstellar materials at interstellar distances are likely decades away, even if Breakthrough Initiatives’ Project Starshot, for example, is vigorously pursued. Hence, an interesting question is if there is a way to exploit this unique opportunity by sending a spacecraft to 1I/’Oumuamua to make observations at close range.
To answer these questions, the Initiative for Interstellar Studies, i4is, has announced Project Lyra on the 30th of October. The goal of the project is to assess the feasibility of a mission to 1I/’Oumuamua using current and near-term technology and to propose mission concepts for achieving a fly-by or rendezvous. The challenge is formidable: 1I/’Oumuamua has a hyperbolic excess velocity of 26 km/s, which translates to a velocity of 5.5 AU/year. It will be beyond Saturn’s orbit within two years. This is much faster than any object humanity has ever launched into space. Compare this to Voyager 1, the fastest object humanity has ever built, which has a hyperbolic excess velocity of 16.6 km/s. As 1I/’Oumuamua is already on its way of leaving our solar system, any spacecraft launched in the future needs to chase it. The challenge to reach the object could stretch the current technological envelope of space exploration.
Logo for Project Lyra
After days of intense work, we have published some preliminary results on the 8th of November 2017 for reaching the object within a timeframe of a few decades. We are currently working on a more detailed mission analysis for the various concepts we have presented in our first paper.
Project Lyra Publications
Hein, A. M., Perakis, N., Long, K. F., Crowl, A., Eubanks, M., Kennedy III, R. G., & Osborne, R. (2017). Project Lyra: Sending a Spacecraft to 1I/'Oumuamua (former A/2017 U1), the Interstellar Asteroid. arXiv preprint arXiv:1711.03155. https://arxiv.org/abs/1711.03155
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