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SYFY WIRE Oumuamua

Could we send a spacecraft to ‘Oumuamua? It’s not impossible…

...but will it take off?

By Elizabeth Rayne
Liz Oumuamua comet GETTY

Strangely shaped space rock? Ancient shard knocked off from a planet? Some sort of alien technology we couldn’t recognize if we tried? What is ‘Ouamuamua (other than Resident Alien's radio receiver)?

We can never really do more than speculate about this mysterious object that seemed to have hurtled into the solar system out of nowhere  — unless we send something out there to investigate. There have been opinions on that. Some scientists think it’s too late to launch a spacecraft that will catch up with the thing, which is speeding through the void at about 57,000 mph and shows no signs of slowing down. Then there are those who think we could catch up.

Adam Hibberd is one of the optimists. The software engineer from i4is, the nonprofit Initiative for Interstellar Studies in the U.K., believes there is a way to fly a spacecraft far and fast enough to reach ‘Ouamuamua. Under Project Lyra, i4is’ incubator for developing mission concepts to reach faraway objects (21 Borisov is another one), he led a study, recently posted on the preprint server arXiv, detailing how we could make an ‘Ouamuamua mission possible.

“We think it is not too late to send a mission because we have calculated trajectories to it that are feasible using current and near-term technology,” Hibberd told SYFY WIRE. “We want to know its morphology and its elemental, isotopic and chemical composition.”

We didn’t exactly miss our chance to observe ‘Ouamuamua. If it wasn’t for PanSTARRS-1, which caught sight of it first, and Hubble, which glimpsed it last, we would have never known it existed. What we haven’t yet been able to do is look at it up close. That might change if a spacecraft taking off in 2028 could reach this cosmic torpedo in 26 years. It zoomed past Saturn’s orbit at the beginning of 2019 and should now be somewhere in the orbit of Neptune, nearly 3 billion miles from Earth, growing more distant en route to the constellation Pegasus.

Getting to ‘Ouamuamua would involve a complicated maneuver. The easiest way would be for a spacecraft to use the Sun’s gravity as a launchpad, but that would need heavy solar shielding. Hibbert thinks such a spacecraft could instead use what he calls the “Jupiter Oberth Maneuver,” named after a method discovered by German physicist and engineer Hermann Oberth, who proposed maximum thrust from a gravitational assist could only happen at what is known as periapsis. This is when the spacecraft is closest to the body it orbits and also going its fastest.

“It is best to apply this thrust at periapsis when the spacecraft’s speed is highest,” said Hibberd. “For Jupiter, this periapsis point is known as ‘perijove’. It is similar to NASA’s Galileo mission to Jupiter, using a similar sequence — Earth launch, Venus, Earth, a DSM, Earth, then Jupiter.”

So the spacecraft will launch and orbit Venus, then Earth before pulling off a deep space maneuver or DSM. This is when the engine burns itself to death far from any bodies in space so it can adjust its trajectory to shoot right into the region of gravitational influence from the body it is headed toward, which would be Jupiter. It would use hardly any fuel until it finally puts the pedal to the proverbial metal, so both Jupiter’s gravity and the sudden burst of fuel power will send it off towards ‘Ouamuamua at around 82,800 mph. “Intense” is an understatement.

While it would be difficult to observe ‘Ouamuamua in the darkness so far from the Sun, it would be worth it. Its speed rocketing into the solar system already gave away that it was not from around here. Both its morphology and composition could reveal things about a distant star system that we might have never imagined, or maybe it is a trespasser from an extremely similar star system that could shed more light on the processes that formed both its system and the solar system. Hibberd is especially interested in finding organic chemicals.

“'Ouamuamua’s nature is currently unknown,” he said. “Evidence is hazy and insufficient. If organic chemicals were found, in particular complex ones, this would increase the evidence of interstellar panspermia, the transmission of life from one system to another.”

Hibbard and his team have submitted their study to the NASA Decadal Survey, which calls for innovative mission ideas every decade. Maybe 'Ouamuamua does have something to do with aliens, even if they’re not intelligent.