Loeb’s hope is that the telescope will identify the next interstellar object when it is on its way into our solar system, with enough warning that we have time to send a spacecraft to intercept it and take a closer look. He cites the Osiris-Rex mission, which launched in September 2016 and has already successfully travelled to the asteroid Bennu, more than 200 million miles (321 million km) from Earth. It’s currently on its way back, due to return with photographs and samples in 2023.
“And that will tell us if it’s artificial, or, or natural,” says Loeb. “And, of course, if it looks artificial, that will be very interesting. And we could land on it, and even read off the labels ‘Made on Planet X’.”
Desch is equally enthusiastic about a trip to an interstellar object, though for slightly more conventional reasons. “When we think about any sort of spacecraft going to something in our own solar system, we have a checklist of things we want to get at, and this would be the same,” he says, listing off some of the most important items, such as whether it contains amino acids – hinting at possible organic life – and determining if it contains water or carbon monoxide. “To get a rundown of all the chemistry of the object, that’s what I’d want,” he says.
But whatever happens, Loeb would like to see the scientific community keep an open mind – especially if our third encounter with an interstellar object proves just as baffling as ‘Oumuamua. “If we find something that we’ve never seen before, let’s collect more data on it and figure out the nature of it, because then we will learn something new about the nurseries or the factories that make such objects,” he says.
* Zaria Gorvett is a senior journalist for BBC Future and tweets @ZariaGorvett
This article was updated on 7 May 2021. The original version incorrectly quoted Alan Jackson as describing ‘Oumuamua’s acceleration as it moved away from the Sun as “rapid”.
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