Researchers have discovered a new superhighway network that allows them to travel much faster through the Solar System than was previously possible. Such paths can transport comets and asteroids from Jupiter to Neptune in less than a decade and to 100 astronomical units in less than a century. They could be used to rapidly send spacecraft to the far reaches of our solar system, as well as to monitor and comprehend near-Earth objects that may collide with our planet.
The researchers observed the dynamical structure of these routes, forming a connected series of arches inside what are known as space manifolds that extend from the asteroid belt to Uranus and beyond, in their paper, published in the November 25, 2020, issue of Science Advances. This newly discovered “celestial autobahn,” or celestial highway, operates over several decades, rather than the hundreds of thousands or millions of years typical of Solar System dynamics.
The most noticeable arch structures are associated with Jupiter and the powerful gravitational forces it exerts. On unprecedented time scales, such manifolds control the population of Jupiter-family comets (comets with orbital periods of 20 years) as well as small-size solar system bodies known as Centaurs. Some of these bodies will collide with Jupiter, while others will be ejected from the Solar System.
The structures were discovered by collecting numerical data on millions of orbits in our Solar System and calculating how these orbits fit within previously known space manifolds. The findings require further investigation, both to determine how they could be used by spacecraft and to determine how such manifolds behave in the vicinity of the Earth, controlling asteroid and meteorite encounters as well as the growing population of artificial man-made objects in the Earth-Moon system.