Scientists propose mission to interstellar comet Borisov


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In a paper published on the Cornell arXIiv site for preprint science papers, scientists have posted a paper proposing sending an unmanned probe to the newly discovered interstellar Comet Borisov, arriving in 2045.

You can download the paper here. [pdf]

Their analysis found that we just missed the ideal and most efficient launch date using the Falcon Heavy. If it had launched in July 2018 a two-ton spacecraft could have reached Comet Borisov by next month.

The best alternative option is a launch in January 2030, flying past Jupiter, then the Sun, and arriving in 2045. Because of the mission’s close approach to the Sun to gain speed, the mission would require the type of shielding developed for the Parker Solar Probe. If the Space Launch System was used for launch, a six-ton spacecraft could be sent. With other available rockets the largest possible payload would be 3 kilograms (about 6 pounds), making the probe a cubesat. As they note,

Despite this very low mass, a CubeSat-scale spacecraft could be sent to the interstellar object. Existing interplanetary CubeSats (Mars Cube One) show that there is no principle obstacle against using such a small spacecraft to deep space.

In fact, having a decade and a half before launch guarantees that a cubesat will be able to do this job, because by 2030 the technology for using smallsats for this kind of planetary mission should be fully developed.

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6 comments

  • fred k

    Alas, the paper did not describe the needed time machine to allow the launch of a probe in july 2018, which is more than 1 year before the comet was discovered.

    A better written paper would have made it clear that launching to intersteller objects is quite difficult, partly due to their very high velocities and partly due to the fact that discovery and detection leaves little time to plan and fly a mission.

  • MDN

    This data cannot be correct. SLS is big, but the delta from 6 tons to 3Kg is to big to square imho. God help us if Richard Shelby gets this BS, as for sure he’ll use it as the justification to keep SLS alive for another decade with no other objective than to support this mission. All the better to milk as many pork dollars out as possible while not having to really do much.

  • Edward

    The abstract suggests to me a different proposal by Hibberd, Perakis, and Hein. Rather than proposing time travel, they lament that we didn’t know of this object early enough to prepare for a classical fly-by mission: “a Falcon Heavy launcher could have hauled a 2 ton spacecraft …” and at a travel time of 1-1/4 year. Rather than proposing using an expensive SLS for a virtually useless mission, they explain how difficult it is to reach interstellar objects: “using the Space Launch System, up-scaled Parker probe heatshield technology, and solid propulsion engines[, a] CubeSat-class spacecraft with a mass of 3 kg” is all that could be used to study the object, and that would need a 15 year travel time and two Oberth maneuvers.

    This paper seems to propose that we do better searches in order to find interstellar objects earlier in their arrivals into our solar system and that we be prepared to intercept them at the most optimal times. As stated in the conclusion: “its discovery roughly two years after the discovery of 1I/’Oumuamua increases the likelihood that the next interstellar object might be discovered in the near future. The feasibility of a mission to both, 1I/’Oumuamua and C/2019 Q4 (Borisov) using existing technologies indicates that missions to further interstellar objects are likely to be feasible as well.

    This was a feasibility study rather than an actual proposal. The conclusion is that it is feasible to send probes to interstellar objects, but only if we are prepared in time and find them soon enough.

  • pzatchok

    This is only one short proposal. only one idea for an intercept.

    I do not see any reason why SpaceX’s Starship couldn’t be used to stack several max payload boosters and have a ton for a final payload interceptor.

    And it could be done with in a year of the Starships first launch. Then launched when the optimum planets alignments are reached. And still get there before 2045.

  • fred k

    Ed said:

    > This was a feasibility study rather than an actual proposal. The conclusion is that it is feasible to send probes to interstellar objects, but only if we are prepared in time and find them soon enough.

    Alas, this makes sense.

    This is what should have been written in the paper, along with a discussion about other techniques that might make for a more responsive space probe launch.

  • Edward

    pzatchok noted: “I do not see any reason why SpaceX’s Starship couldn’t be used to stack several max payload boosters and have a ton for a final payload interceptor.

    That may be a good catch. Because the paper specified that it was a study using “existing technologies,” I assumed that the authors focused on existing hardware, such as SLS and the Falcons. However, there are no existing spacecraft for studying an interstellar object, so It may be completely fair to include rockets that are under development for potential missions.

    It seems to me that a Starship with low Earth orbit refueling capability should be capable of taking a multi-tonne spacecraft for a C/2019 Q4 (Borisov), flyby by 2045, or a lighter spacecraft for an orbital insertion.

    fred k added: “… along with a discussion about other techniques that might make for a more responsive space probe launch.

    This paper does seem limited in imagination. Perhaps the authors intended only to generate discussion, such as pzatchok’s and fred k’s ideas. It seems to have worked, at least here on Behind the Black.

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