Could We Intercept Interstellar Comet C/2019 Q4 Borisov? - Universe Today - Canadanewsmedia
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Could We Intercept Interstellar Comet C/2019 Q4 Borisov? – Universe Today

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When ‘Oumuamua passed through our Solar System two years ago, it set off a flurry of excitement in the astronomical community. Here was the first-ever interstellar object that be observed by human trackers, and the mysteries surrounding its true nature and composition led to some pretty interesting theories. There were even some proposals for a rapid mission that would be able to rendezvous with it.

And now that a second interstellar object – C/2019 Q4 (Borisov) – has been detected traveling through the Solar System, similar proposals are being made. One of them comes from a group of scientists from the Initiative for Interstellar Studies (i4is) in the UK. In a recent study, they assess the technical feasibility of sending a mission to this interstellar comet using existing technology, and found that there were a few options!

In many ways, C/2019 Q4 (Borisov) represents an opportunity to conduct the kinds of research that were not possible with ‘Oumuamua. When that mystery object was first observed, it had already made its closest pass to the Sun, past Earth, and was on its way out of the Solar System. Nevertheless, what we were able to learn about ‘Oumuamua led to the conclusion that it was an entirely new class of celestial object.

Artist’s impression of the first interstellar asteroid/comet, “Oumuamua”. This unique object was discovered on Oct. 19th, 2017, by the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope in Hawaii. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

In addition to those who ventured that it was either a comet or an asteroid, there were also those who theorized that ‘Oumuamua could be a fragment from a comet that exploded when passing close to our Sun, or even an extra-terrestrial solar sail. Another interesting find was the fact that similar objects likely pass through our Solar System on a regular basis (many of which stay).

For these reasons, a mission that could study such objects up close is very desirable. As Dr. Andreas M. Hein – the executive director of i4is’s board of directors, the chairman of its Technical Research Committee, and one of the co-authors on the recent study – told Universe Today via email:

“Investigating interstellar objects from a close distance would provide us with unique data about other star systems without actually flying to them. They might provide unique insights into the evolution and composition of other star systems and exoplanets in them. Interstellar objects are cool as it’s a bit like: If you can’t go to the mountain, let the mountain come to you. It will likely take many decades until we can send a spacecraft to another star. Hence, interstellar objects might be an intermediate solution for finding out more about other stars and their planets.”

What’s more, he claims, these objects have probably been travelling between star system for hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of years. As a result, they undoubtedly picked up material along the way or bear the marks of encounters with other objects or forces. In short, their composition and surface features can tell us a great deal about what is out there in the interstellar medium.

Artist’s illustration of a light-sail powered by lasers generated on the surface of a planet. Credit: M. Weiss/CfA

This is not the first time that i4is has proposed sending a spacecraft to rendezvous with an interstellar object. In 2017, Dr. Hein and several colleagues from i4is (who also co-authored this study) produced a paper titled “Project Lyra: Sending a Spacecraft to 1I/’Oumuamua (former A/2017 U1), the Interstellar Asteroid“, which was conducted with the help of the asteroid-prospecting company Asteroid Initiatives LLC.

The project was so-named because of ‘Oumuamua’s origins, which astronomers concluded came from the general direction of Vega – the brightest star in the northern constellation of Lyra. After taking into account the speed with which ‘Oumuamua was leaving the Solar System at the time – 26 km/s (93,600 km/h; 58,160 mph) – they determined that any proposal would be a trade-off between three factors.

These included when a mission could launch, the velocity it could achieve, and the time it would take to rendezvous with the object. Under the circumstances, they felt that the best option was to wait for future technological breakthroughs – such as those being pursued by Breakthrough Starshot (a concept for a laser-driven interstellar solar sail).

These conclusions have proven very applicable, thanks to the detection of a second interstellar object passing through our Solar System in as many years. In their most recent study, the research team once again used Optimum Interplanetary Trajectory Software (OITS) – which was developed by team-member Adam Hibberd – to assess all available options for sending a spacecraft to rendezvous with an interstellar object.

The Falcon Heavy's first flight. Each time the Heavy lifts off, it uses roughly 440 tons of fuel. Image: SpaceX
The Falcon Heavy’s first flight. Each time the Heavy lifts off, it uses roughly 440 tons of fuel. Image: SpaceX

These included the optimal launch vehicle (like NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) or SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy) the optimal trajectory for the mission, and the best type of spacecraft. In the end, they determined that humanity has the capability of rendezvousing with an interstellar object using existing technology and came up with a mission architecture that could make that happen.

This mission would rely on a heavy-launch vehicle and could alternately employ a 2 ton (1.8 metric ton) or a 3 kg (6.6 lbs) CubeSat spacecraft. Depending on when it launched and what its preferred trajectory would be, it might also need to conduct a Jupiter flyby and Solar Oberth maneuver to catch up with C/2019 Q4 (Borisov). As Dr. Hein explained:

“Our results show that for both, ‘Oumuamua and C/2019 Q4 (Borisov), we already have the technology to visit these objects. Regarding ‘Oumuamua, we can launch a spacecraft towards it even beyond the year 2030. There is plenty of time to develop such a spacecraft. The case for C/2019 Q4 (Borisov) is a bit more tricky, as it is faster than ‘Oumuamua. But even for this object, we could have sent a two-ton spacecraft to it with a Falcon Heavy, if we would have launched it in 2018.”

“Later missions are also possible, but require a bigger launcher. Future telescopes will be able to detect such objects much earlier and with adequate preparation, we can send a spacecraft on an encounter mission. So we have the technology to do this and with the discovery of C/2019 Q4 (Borisov), we also know that we probably have plenty of opportunities to fly to such an object.”

Artist’s impression of the interstellar object, `Oumuamua, experiencing outgassing as it leaves our Solar System. Credit: ESA/Hubble, NASA, ESO, M. Kornmesser

Once again, the presence of an interstellar object in our Solar System is a major source of excitement. In addition to all the opportunities to learn from them, C/2019 Q4 and ‘Oumuamua are encouraging because of the implication their presence has. Not only do they confirm that objects from distant stars pass through our System pretty regularly; they also show that we are at a point where we can detect, track and study them.

But knowing that in the future, we will be able to study them up close is especially exciting! In fact, the ESA is currently working on a mission that could very be the one to rendezvous with a future interstellar object. It’s known as the Comet Interceptor, a “fast-class” concept consisting of three spacecraft that will wait in space until a pristine comet appears, rapidly catch up with it!

“We imagine two types of research,” Dr. Hein said. “First, remote-sensing, for example with a telescope taking pictures. Second, we can analyze material from the object directly by shooting an impactor into it and catching some of the particles from the dust plume which is generated with the main spacecraft. This would provide unique insights into the composition of the object.”

As for what this research could reveal, Dr. Hein has some thoughts on that too: “I can only speculate but we might see evidence that organic molecules, the building blocks for life, actually travel between star systems and who knows, maybe life itself might actually spread between stars in our galaxy.”

Further Reading: arXiv

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Billionaire Bezos unveils plans to land humans on Moon, with a little help from some old friends – The Register

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Blue Origin and industry vets eye a slice of NASA’s lunar lander largesse

Richest person in the world, Jeff Bezos, yesterday pitched NASA a team mostly made up of the usual suspects to build a lunar lander for the agency’s ambitious 2024 boots-on-Moon goal.

Speaking at the International Astronautical Congress in Washington, Bezos announced the “national team”, of which his Blue Origin would be the prime contractor (naturally). The members consist of Lockheed Martin for the Ascent Stage, Northrop Grumman for the Transfer Element and Draper providing the guidance and navigation systems.

“We could not ask for better partners,” intoned the billionaire, which is fair enough. After all, elements of all the companies in the team-up worked on the Apollo program back in the day (although those engineers will have long been put out to pasture.)

The Transfer Element will guide the stack from lunar orbit to close to the Moon, from whence the Descent Element will conduct a powered descent. Lockheed Martin’s ascent module will then send the freshly minted Moonwalkers back into space.

Blue Origin will also be building the descent element of the lander, which uses the company’s BE-7 engine. The powerplant, Bezos said, is fuelled by liquid hydrogen and oxygen and as well being “highly throttleable” and developing 10,000 pounds of thrust.

The BE-7, of course, has yet to actually leave the test stand. Bezos told the audience that to date, the company had managed 13 minutes of test time, including a three-minute continuous firing.

That same engine, Bezos added, would be used by Northrop Grumman in the transfer element of the lunar lander stack.

Bezos unveiled the Blue Moon lander back in May and the announcement of the National Team is an indicator that it will take more than one company to meet the 2024 goal. It will also reassure those within NASA nervous about flinging cash at a company that has yet to even make Earth orbit, let alone do anything in deep space.

And NASA has lots of experience in giving money to Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman after all.

Grumman, of course, built the original Apollo Lunar Module back in NASA’s glory days while Draper provided the guidance systems for the Moon missions.

These days, Northrop Grumman provides NASA with ISS cargo services and is working on both the boosters for the eternally-delayed Space Launch System and the habitat for the agency’s Lunar Gateway.

Draper has continued to work on precision guidance, although there is a delightful hole to tumble down in researching the Apollo guidance units, particularly efforts to fire up the old things once more. Naturally, the hand-woven circuitry of the Apollo era won’t feature this time around.

NASA is due to select two contractor teams in late 2020 to actually build the lander, having asked for proposals (and deleted certain reusability requirements in the rush to 2024). ®

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Bezos's Blue Origin partners with Lockheed, others on moon lander – Financial Post

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WASHINGTON — U.S. billionaire Jeff Bezos said on Tuesday his space company Blue Origin has signed agreements with Lockheed Martin Corp, Northrop Grumman Corp and research and development organization Draper for development of its lunar lander designed to help NASA put humans on the moon by 2024.

Blue Origin’s so-called Blue Moon lunar lander, unveiled by Bezos in May, is in development and sits at the center of the space company’s ambition to ferry humans into deep space and land key contracts from the U.S. space agency for space exploration.

“I’m excited to announce that we put together a national team to go back to the moon,” Bezos, founder and CEO of online retail giant Amazon, said at the International Astronautical Congress.

The four companies, with Blue Origin as the lead contractor, plan to submit a proposal for the lander to NASA under its Artemis lunar program, an accelerated mission to the moon kickstarted in March by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence.

Bezos called the partnerships a “national team” whose history in space exploration fits the Blue Moon’s mission. Lockheed is separately developing the moon-bound astronaut capsule named Orion. Northrop helped NASA build the Apollo lunar landers in the 1960s. Draper, a not-for-profit research and development organization, built NASA’s navigation computers for Apollo lunar landers. (Reporting by Joey Roulette; Editing by Sandra Maler)

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A giant full beaver moon set to dazzle Metro Vancouver skies – Vancouver Courier

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While it is getting darker earlier in Metro Vancouver, this month’s full beaver moon promises to illuminate the night sky.

The November full moon is thought to have derived its funny name because it occurred during the optimal time to trap the furry creatures. In fact, both colonial Americans as well as the Algonquin tribes referred to it as such.

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“Why this name? Back then, this was the month to set beaver traps before the swamps froze, to ensure a supply of warm winter furs,” reports Farmer’s Almanac.

While it is commonly known as the beaver moon, it was also called the Full Frost Moon by other North American Tribes.

According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, the moon will be fullest during the day on Tuesday, Nov. 12. However, Vancouver stargazers will still be able to see the nearly-full moon in all her celestial glory the night before (Nov. 11) as well as later that night (Nov. 12).

What’s more, this full moon casts long, hauntingly beautiful shadows in the Northern Hemisphere. They are similar to those cast by the midday summer sun, as the moon is extremely high in the sky during this time.

Stargazers should opt to travel as far away from city lights as possible in order to avoid light pollution that will obscure the clarity of heavenly bodies. While this works best the in more remote places, anywhere that has a higher elevation will also provide more ideal viewing conditions.

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