The mission to intercept a possible alien ship in its passage through the solar system

The Lyra Project wants to hunt down ‘Oumuamua, an interstellar object that does not appear to be of natural origin and could be the first observed technological relic belonging to another civilization.

The first object discovered outside the Solar System, ` Oumuamua , had a highly unusual shape, most likely flat, and drifted away from the Sun without showing any sign of cometary evaporation. The anomalies it presents in comparison with asteroids or comets in the solar system have not yet been resolved due to the lack of data collected when it passed near Earth in October and November 2017.

For this reason, a team of astronomers intends to pursue and closely study `Oumuamua in the next century. A new paper sets out the orbital parameters needed for a ‘ Project Lyra ‘ related mission, which could reach “Oumuamua” in the year 2086 or 2175.

Finding `Oumuamua as an unexpected Near-Earth Object is akin to noticing potential mates in a coffee shop and realizing that you have a greater interest in meeting them after they’ve left the room. Feeling the urge to chase them down the street is natural. However, a more sensible response to these circumstances would be to systematically search for other couples with similar characteristics. Surely, in a large enough population of possible candidates, a similar one will appear.

It is this latter approach that is suggested by Chile’s Rubin Observatory dating app LSST, which will soon begin scanning the southern hemisphere sky with its 3.2 billion-pixel camera every four days. In collaboration with my students and postdocs from the Galileo Project, I am designing the software that will allow us to discover anomalous interstellar objects like `Oumuamua in the data collected by the LSST.

 

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On the other hand, the challenge of pursuing `Oumuamua within the Solar System is daunting. Currently, this interstellar object is located at a distance of 5.4 billion kilometers from Earth, which is equivalent to 36 times the distance between Earth and the Sun. As a result, its brightness is now 60 million times dimmer than during its closest approach to Earth. At magnitude 37.8, it is well beyond the sensitivity of even the deepest images captured by the Webb Space Telescope.

Oumuamua is estimated to be about a hundred meters in size, which implies that a meter-sized telescope aboard a chase spacecraft would only be able to detect it with about 10 pixels per side at the diffraction limit, but only if the ship comes within a closest approach distance to Oumuamua similar to the diameter of the Earth. This would require a trajectory precision on the order of one millionth of the distance between Oumuamua and Earth. Since this necessary precision is much more demanding than the uncertainties in Oumuamua’s trajectory, the pursuing spacecraft would have to detect light reflected or emitted by `Oumuamua as it approaches and navigate accordingly. This would imply carrying a heavy telescope on board, which would make the mission significantly more expensive.

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But there are other technical challenges. Since the spacecraft would have to exceed the speed of `Oumuamua, which is 26.5 kilometers per second, the encounter would be extremely brief. The encounter time would be of the order of the duration necessary to cross twice the diameter of the Earth at a speed of tens of kilometers per second, which is equivalent to approximately ten minutes.

 

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