MIT scientists propose using sun ‘slingshot’ technology to help spacecraft intercept interstellar objects

A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) outlines a new way to intercept interstellar objects such as Oumuamua using solar slingshot technology. The idea is to use the sun’s gravity to accelerate spacecraft to rendezvous with interstellar objects by using solar sails to locate deep space probes at the edge of the solar system.

MIT scientists propose using sun 'slingshot' technology to help spacecraft intercept interstellar objects

When Oumuamua passes in 2017, it’s a truly historic event: it’s the first time astronomers have detected an object from interstellar space entering the solar system. It flies in a hyperbolic orbit, returning to the outer galaxy after flying over the inner galaxy. When it did, observatories around the world were watching the object, giving scientists their first close-up glimpse of an object that does not belong to our solar system.

However, they have any time to plan a mission to Oumuamua. Worse, such a task would face significant technical challenges. Most important of these is the need for a huge rocket to reach the speed required to surpass the celestial bodies.

“There are many basic challenges in observing interstellar objects from Earth — they are usually so small that light from the sun needs to light it up in some way, and our telescopes can even detect it,” said Linares Richard Linares, an assistant professor in the AeroStro Department of Aviation and Astronomy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “And they’re flying so fast that it’s hard to launch a mission from Earth in this little window of opportunity before it disappears.” We have to get there quickly, and current propulsion technology is a limiting factor. “

MIT scientists propose using sun 'slingshot' technology to help spacecraft intercept interstellar objects

Linares has developed an alternative to the concept of traditional space missions in the form of “dynamic orbital slingshots that rendezvous with interstellar objects”. Selected as the first phase of NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, the idea was not to put spacecraft in orbit around the sun, but to do the opposite.

When a deep space mission is launched, what actually happens is that the rocket moves the spacecraft from Earth orbit to another orbit. This requires a lot of energy, precise time and calculation to ensure that the probe and target reach the same location at the same time.

Linares proposes to launch “static satellites” that, once launched from Earth, will use the carefully calculated solar sails of mass-to-area ratio, move to the edge of the solar system and locate them in a huge circle. And these don’t go around the sun. Instead, the solar sails reduce the spacecraft’s speed to zero. Then the solar sail will be like a kite, balancing the pressure of the solar wind and the sun’s gravity, let it hover in one place.

The idea is that static satellites are waiting in orbit outside. If an interstellar object is found, at a calculated moment, the selected satellite will roll up its sails and fall toward the sun, which will become very fast during flight. It will then enter a slingshot-like trajectory, allowing it to transcend and meet with interstellar objects. The static satellite will then deploy a cube satellite to operate indefinitely in the interstellar celestial orbit.

“A close-up study of an interstellar object will completely change our understanding of planetary formation and evolution,” said Ben Benjamin Weiss, a professor of planetary science at the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, who is working with Linares and other MIT teachers to develop the concept. “For the first time, we have been able to get sensitive measurements of the general composition of other solar systems. We can also learn about the speed and universality of celestial objects in the transfer between the solar system, which will tell us the feasibility of interstellar life transfer. “

According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Linares and other researchers will study the feasibility, performance, and potential tasks of the concept over the next nine months.