MIT Wants To Catch Interstellar Visitors

MIT researchers propose a network "statites" at the edge of the solar system to be in the best position to intercept interstellar visitors.


(Statites positioned for intercept)

In 2017, a telescope in Hawaii detected our first celestial visitor from another solar system — a big deal, since we haven’t quite figured out how to visit them ourselves yet. ‘Oumuamua, the cigar-shaped interstellar object (ISO) whose name roughly translates to “first distant messenger” in Hawaiian, will certainly not be the last visitor to pass through...

To closely observe an ISO hurtling through space, time is of the essence. Richard Linares, an assistant professor in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AeroAstro) at MIT, developed a concept for a “dynamic orbital slingshot for rendezvous with interstellar objects.”

To eliminate these barriers, Linares instead proposes using statites, or “static satellites” enabled by a solar sail constructed with just the right mass-to-area ratio. A thin enough sail with a large enough surface area will have a low enough mass to use solar radiation pressure to cancel out the sun’s gravitational force no matter how far away it is, creating a propulsive force that allows the statite to hover in place indefinitely. Linares envisions deploying a constellation of statites to act as interstellar watchdogs along the edges of our solar system, lying in wait until roused by an ISO crossing our threshold.

Once detected, the solar sail then enables the statite to switch gears quickly and spring into action. Since the statite has a velocity of zero, it is already in position for efficient trajectory. Once released, the stored energy in the solar sail would leverage the gravitational pull of the sun to slingshot the statite in a freefall trajectory towards the ISO, allowing it to catch up. If the timing is right, the statite could tag the ISO with a CubeSat armed with onboard sensors to orbit the ISO over an extended period of time, gathering important scientific data.

In their outstanding 1974 collaboration The Mote in God's Eye, science fiction writers Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle envision what would be required to intercept a fast-moving object entering a solar system from interstellar space. In this case, the MacArthur is the closest Navy vessel:

"Message from Fleet Admiral Cranston, sir."

Rod looked up in irritation. He hadn't wanted to eat alone, but the wardroom had invited Sally Fowler to dinner—it was their turn, after all—and if Blaine had invited himself to dine with his officers, Mr. Bury would have come too. Now even this miserable dinner was interrupted. "Can't it wait?"

"It's priority OC, sir."

"A hot flash for us? OC?" Blaine stood abruptly, the protein aspic forgotten. "Read it to me, Mr. Whitbread."

"Yes, sir. MACARTHUR FROM IMPFLEETNEW SCOT. OC OC 8175—"

"You may omit the authentication codes, Midshipman. I assume you checked them out."

"Yes, sir. Uh, anyway, sir, date, code . . . MESSAGE BEGINS YOU WILL PROCEED WITH ALL POSSIBLE SPEED REPEAT ALL POSSIBLE SPEED TO BRIGIT FOR REFUELING WITH PRIORITY DOUBLE A ONE STOP YOU WILL REFUEL IN MNIMUM POSSIBLE TIME STOP PARAGRAPH

"MACARTHUR WILL THEN PROCEED TO—uh, sir, it gives some coordinate points in the New Cal system—OR ANY OTHER VECTOR YOUR CHOICE TO INTERCEPT AND INVESTIGATE MYSTERIOUS OBJECT ENTERING NEW CALEDONIA SYSTEM FROM NORMAL SPACE REPEAT NORMAL SPACE STOP OBJECT PROCEEDS ALONG GALACTIC VECTOR—uh, it gives a course from the general direction of the Coal Sack; sir— AT A SPEED OF APPROXIMATELY SEVEN PERCENT VELOCITY OF LIGHT STOP OBJECT IS DECELERATING RAPIDLY STOP IMPERIAL UNIVERSITY ASTRONOMERS SAY SPECTRUM OF INTRUDER IS SPECTRUM OF NEW CAL SUN BLUE SHIFTED STOP OBVIOUS CONCLUSION THAT INTRUDER IS POWERED BY LIGHT SAIL STOP PARAGRAPH

"IMPERIAL UNIVERSITY ASTRONOMERS CERTAIN OBJECT IS ARTIFACT CONSTRUCTED BY INTELLIGENT BEINGS STOP FYI NO KNOWN HUMAN COLONIES AT APPARENT ORIGIN OF INTRUDER STOP PARAGRAPH

"CRUISER LERMONTOV DISPATCHED TO ASSIST BUT CANNOT ARRIVE TO MATCH VELOCITY WITH INTRUDER UNTIL SEVENTYONE HOURS AFTER MINIMUM TIME MACARTHUR VELOCITY MATCH WITH OBJECT STOP PROCEED WITH CAUTION STOP YOU ARE TO ASSUME INTRUDER IS HOSTILE UNTIL OTHERWISE ASSURED STOP YOU ARE ORDERED TO USE CAUTION BUT DO NOT INITIATE HOSTILITIES REPEAT DO NOT INITIATE HOSTILITIES STOP

"BREAK BREAK GO GET IT CZILLER STOP WISH I WAS OUT THERE STOP GODSPEED STOP CRANSTON BREAK MESSAGE ENDS AUTHENTICATION

Thanks also to Fred Kiesche, who was thinking the same thing. You can read more from this chapter at baen books. Via MIT news

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