The other day we witnessed one of the greatest recent scientific discoveries, when an asteroid from another planetary system – 1I/2017 U1 (`Oumuamua) – was found in our Solar System.
It was the first time we've ever spotted an interstellar visitor, marking a rare event in our history of astronomy. But it begged the question, would it be possible for us to visit the asteroid and study it?
That's what a group called the Insitute For Interstellar Studies (i4is) has been looking into. In a paper published on arXiv, they've looked at the various ways we might be able to catch up to and study this rare object.
"The first definitely interstellar object 1I/’Oumuamua (previously A/2017 U1) observed in our solar system provides the opportunity to directly study material from other star systems," they write. "Can such objects be intercepted?"
Now, the big problem is that this object is speeding out of our Solar System at about 138,000 kilometers per hour (86,000 miles per hour). It's expected to slow down to 95,000 kilometers per hour (59,000 miles per hour), but this still presents a problem.
Our fastest current spacecraft is Voyager 1, which is making its way out of the Solar System at 61,200 km/h (38,000 mph). It took quite a few years for it to reach this speed, though; our fastest spacecraft at launch was New Horizons, at 58,536 km/h (36,373 mph).
These are, of course, not fast enough to catch 'Oumuamua. But i4is looked at a number of current and emerging technologies that might be capable of doing so within five to 30 years.
Using existing chemical propulsion, coupled with a Jupiter flyby, they say it might be possible to catch up to the object. You'd need a lot of propellant, though, so we'd need to use an upcoming heavy-lift rocket like SpaceX's BFR or NASA's SLS to make this work.