How Earth’s new Rubin Observatory will usher in the next era of asteroid space missions

The upcoming Vera C. Rubin Observatory will never leave Earth itself, but the highly detailed “big picture” view of the cosmos it will offer scientists could very well usher in a new era of space exploration .

The solar system is filled with billions of small bodies and icy objects, many of which formed about 4.5 billion years ago when Earth-like planets were forming around the sun. Space missions such as NASA’s OSIRIS-REx, Lucy, and Psyche are making progress to visit these primordial solar system bodies. They are collecting images, and even OSIRIS-REx snagged some samples, for inquiries here on Earth – all informed by data collected at observatories around the globe.

Rubin, which will see its “first light” in 2025, will be able to detect millions of new asteroids, comets and possibly even bodies passing through our planetary backyard from other systems. Take Oumuamua, for example, which was first seen in 2017. After detecting these bodies, Rubin will quickly track them as they move around the solar system and pass close to Earth – or even if they stay in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

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“Nothing will come close to the depth of Rubin’s survey and the level of characterization we will get for solar system objects,” Siegfried Eggl, Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Head of the Working Group on the Inner Solar System within Rubin’s . The Solar System Science Collaboration said in a statement. “It’s interesting that we have the ability to visit interesting things and look at them up close. But to do that, we need to know they exist and where they are.

“This is what Rubin will tell us.”

Picking out asteroid muses

Rubin will monitor solar system bodies and distant cosmic objects, even beyond the boundaries of the solar system and the Milky Way galaxy, while conducting its 10-year Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST).

By scanning the entire southern hemisphere sky every few nights with a fast-moving 8.4-metre telescope and the world’s largest digital camera, Rubin is expected to greatly expand our catalog of known solar system objects taken over 200 year — three at least 5 times, scientists’ project.

Vera C. Rubin Observatory as seen at dawn on the summit of El Peñón de Cerro Pachón in Chile.

Vera C. Rubin Observatory as seen at dawn on the summit of El Peñón de Cerro Pachón in Chile.

Vera C. Rubin Observatory as seen at dawn on the summit of El Peñón de Cerro Pachón in Chile. (Image credit: RubinObs/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/J. Pinto)

Rubin, currently under construction on the Cerro Pachón mountain in northern Chile, will not only see many new things for the solar system, but scientists also hope that it will gather more information about the wider “space landscape” of the solar system. .

This could reveal entire regions of unique objects to consider as targets for future space missions.

“If you think Rubin is looking at a beach, you see millions and millions of individual grains of sand that together make up the entire beach. There could be an area of ​​yellow sand, or black volcanic sand,” said Eggl. “A space mission to an object in that region could investigate what makes it different. Often, we don’t know what’s strange or interesting if we don’t know what context it’s in.”

The observatory will be able to alert operators to changes in the night sky within 60 seconds of seeing them, which could help space agencies plan and rapidly deploy missions towards moving objects of interest quickly.

This could also give scientists an early warning of an interstellar object like Oumuamua as it passes through the solar system, for example, allowing teams to study the intruder in situ before it slips away off and back into deep space.

“Rubin is able to give us the preparation time we need to launch a mission to intercept an interstellar object,” Eggl added. “That’s a synergy that’s unique to Rubin and unique to the time we’re living in.”

A rendering of NASA's Lucy spacecraft as it approaches asteroid Dinkinesh.A rendering of NASA's Lucy spacecraft as it approaches asteroid Dinkinesh.

A rendering of NASA’s Lucy spacecraft as it approaches asteroid Dinkinesh.

A rendering of NASA’s Lucy spacecraft. (Image credit: Robert Lea/NASA)

One project already preparing to take advantage of Rubin’s data is the JAXA/European Space Agency Comet Interceptor mission that will launch in 2029. The Interceptor will be waiting for a long-visited solar system comet or interstellar object as he goes on to see. facing the sun. Then, it will be deployed for investigation.

Rubin could also assist with missions involving objects of interest located close to a spacecraft while it is on its primary mission.


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One active mission that could benefit from Rubin’s eye on the solar system is NASA’s asteroid spacecraft, Lucy. The 12-year mission is set to conduct the first in situ study of the Trojan asteroids, two families of space rocks that share Jupiter’s orbit around the sun.

Rubin could see smaller and fainter asteroids located near Lucy’s path to Jupiter, offering new opportunities and unexpected flight opportunities for NASA’s mission.

“With the telescopes we have now, we’re basically looking at the big boulders on the beach,” Eggl said. “But Rubin zoomed in on the finest grains of sand.”

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