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In mid-October, the University of Hawaii’s Pan-STARRS1 telescope discovered an asteroid on its way out of our solar system. The trajectory of the rock, and its high velocity, showed that it wasn't something from around here—it had come flying in from interstellar space, with an origin somewhere in the direction of Vega. It's likely that this asteroid has spent the past several hundred million years alone in deep space, and its chance encounter with our sun is just a brief one, before it continues its lonely journey across the galaxy. Its discoverers named it ‘Oumuamua.

As far as we know, ‘Oumuamua is the first interstellar asteroid we've ever seen, and obviously, it would be amazing if we could somehow go check it out. At the moment, it's out past the orbit of Mars and getting farther away—every second, it's traveling just over 38 kilometers, which is stupendously fast, even for space things. Usually, when planning a mission to an asteroid, you'd have plenty of time to plan and prepare but at this point every second counts—and we're running out of time.

A group of researchers from the Initiative for Interstellar Studies (i4is) published a paper to arXiv earlier this month taking a preliminary look at some realistic options that we might have for getting a spacecraft near enough to ‘Oumuamua to learn something about it. The good news is that if we act fast, we might be able to get there without inventing warp drive first.

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Category: Science