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Scientists want to send a probe to catch up with ‘Oumumua by 2054

That's what if it hurts the most.

'Oumumua, the first interstellar object observed in our solar system, may be an alien spacecraft, but it may also be a cigar-shaped rock. If only it had hung around our necks in the galaxy long enough for us to have figured it out.

While many in the scientific community are resigned to never finding out the true answer, a team has outlined an ambitious plan to send a probe to catch up with the mysterious space object as it travels farther and farther away from Earth, a report from Forbes reveals.

Chasing the 'extraordinary' 'Oumumua

After 'Oumumua was discovered on October 19, 2017 by the Pan-STARRS1 Near-Earth Object study, astronomers pointed out several anomalies that meant the object did not resemble other asteroids observed in our solar system.

Shortly after 'Oumumua was first observed, it changed e.g. speed and took it away from the originally predicted path. The strange object also left no trace of waste in the wake. An astrophysicist from Harvard, Professor Avi Loeb, and his team so famously suggested that 'Oumuamua was an interstellar spaceship, or at least a piece of one.

Scientists want to send a probe to catch up with 'Oumumua by 2054
An illustration of 'Oumuamua. Source: ESA / Hubble, NASA, ESO, M. Kornmesser

Now, 'Oumumua is out of reach of our most powerful telescopes, but these inconsistencies are just too exciting not to follow up. Therefore, a team from the Initiative for Interstellar Studies (I4IS) released a new paper outlining their plans for Project Lyra, a mission that would send a solar sail probe to catch up and analyze 'Oumumua before it is lost to us forever.

"Theories to explain the nature of 1I / 'Oumuamua have included a fractal dust aggregate, a hydrogen iceberg, a nitrogen iceberg, an alien solar sail, fragments of a tidal planet, and so on," the authors wrote of the paper. "All explanations have one thing in common - they are extraordinary."

A sunship mission with a gravity boost from Jupiter

The new paper says a mission could start in early 2028 and reach 'Oumumua, based on its speed and direction of travel as it left our solar system, between 2050-2054. In the first four years of the mission, it would orbit the Earth twice, and Venus and Jupiter once to get gravity assistance and send it on its way to the mysterious space object.

Solar sailing technology, which was proven to work by the Planetary Society's LightSail 2 proof-of-concept mission, would help propel the probe on its way to overtake 'Oumumua. However, the mission would use a photon sail that was at least partially powered by a laser on Earth, much like Breakthrough Starshot's concept of a light sailing probe that could reach our nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, within two decades of launch.

Scientists want to send a probe to catch up with 'Oumumua by 2054
Breakthrough Starshot's concept for light sails can reach Alpha Centauri in 20 years. Source: Breakthrough initiatives

Although other teams have suggested missions to 'Oumumua, most of these have relied on performing an Oberth maneuver around the Sun. In other words, when the probe begins to fall into the Sun's gravitational well, it will amplify its thruster and give it a massive speed boost. Since this would require a massive shield to protect against the sun's heat and radiation, the I4IS team suggested using an Oberth maneuver around Jupiter instead. "The mission would be much more like existing interplanetary missions," the authors explained. However, the launch date should not be set earlier than February 2028 due to Jupiter's current orbital adjustment.

Since 'Oumumua was first observed, another interstellar object, named C / 2019 Q4 (Borisov), was discovered. Unlike 'Oumumua, it turned out that the comet is much more similar to other space rocks observed throughout history. So much the more reason to hunt 'Oumumua and discover its mysteries. That is, of course, if it did not already reach a flight path to its nearest spaceport.

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