Astronomers have discovered a new network of ‘superhighways’ running through the Solar System and could speed up space travel in the future.
Researchers from the University of California, San Diego looked at the orbits of millions of bodies in our Solar System and calculated how they fit together and interact.
Roads allow objects to move through space much faster than previously thought possible, for example, traveling between Jupiter and Neptune in less than a decade.
One day NASA or other space agencies could make use of these superhighways to speed up travel time from Earth to distant parts of the Solar System, but the team still can’t say how it would work or how much faster the travel would be.
Roads allow space rocks to travel through space much faster than previously thought – for example, traveling between Jupiter and Neptune in less than a decade.
To discover these ‘celestial autobahns’, the team analyzed the spatial varieties, invisible structures consisting of a series of connected arcs, that are generated by gravitational interactions in the Solar System.
To understand how these arcs are interconnected, the team had to examine the orbits of millions of objects, including comets, moons and planets.
In a paper published in Science Advances, the researchers looked at structures between objects that stretch from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter to Uranus and beyond.
Space collectors act as the boundaries of dynamic channels, that is, the connections between gravitational interactions, allowing rapid transport to the inner and outer reaches of the Solar System.
Maps of the superhighway between the outer edge of the main asteroid belt at 3 AU, that is, three times the distance between the Sun and Earth, to just beyond Uranus at 20 AU
Dynamic map of an enlarged part of the first image and another made using the same orbit, showing some of the routes and hidden structures within the space objects they launch
“We reveal a remarkable and hitherto undetected ornamental structure of multiples, connected in a series of arcs stretching from the asteroid belt to Uranus and beyond,” the team wrote in their paper.
This newly discovered skyway acts to move objects over several decades, as opposed to hundreds of thousands or millions of years in open space.
The most conspicuous arc structures are linked to Jupiter and the strong gravitational forces it exerts on trapped objects under its influence.
“Jupiter, being the most massive body in our planetary system, is responsible for most of the structures that we have discovered,” study co-author Aaron J Rosengren of the University of California, San Diego, told MailOnline.
“But each planet generates similar” arcs “and all these structures can interact to produce quite complicated transport routes.”
He added that the small bodies located within the ‘collecting tubes’ will follow prescribed trajectories.
“Orbits in these varieties meet Jupiter on rapid timescales, where they can transform into collision or escape paths, reaching the distance of Neptune in a mere decade,” the researchers wrote.
“All the planets generate similar varieties that permeate the Solar System, allowing rapid transportation through a true heavenly highway.
“It should come as no surprise that Jupiter can induce large-scale transport on ten-year time scales,” the authors wrote in their paper.
This has been seen in previous space missions, designed specifically for Jupiter-assisted transport. The flybys of the two Voyager missions are excellent examples.
“Astrodynamics are also well aware that gravity aids can be enabled by multiples,” according to the US team.
“However, its widespread influence on natural celestial bodies has been largely undervalued and unexplored.”
This is a map of the superhighway structures surrounding Jupiter, concentrated in a highly chaotic structure within the arches.
The populations of comets in the Jupiter family, as well as the small bodies in the Solar System known as centaurs, are controlled by such varieties on unprecedented timescales.
Some of these bodies will end up colliding with Jupiter or will be ejected from the Solar System, and one day they will reach a distant star system.
The structures were solved by collecting data on millions of orbits in our Solar System and calculating how these orbits fit within the already known spatial varieties.
The results need to be studied further, according to the researchers, to understand how spacecraft can make better use of the new superhighways.
Jovian minimum distance maps showing the fastest route around the largest planet in our solar system, caused by its enormous gravitational pull.
The team also wants to determine how such varieties behave in the vicinity of Earth, as they have so far focused on those beyond the asteroid belt after Mars.
By understanding their role in the inner Solar System, they hope to understand how they control asteroid and meteorite encounters.
In the future, this could help astronomers and engineers understand the possible future impact on stellar dynamics of the growing population of man-made artificial objects in the Earth-Moon system.
Space highways could also one day be used by space agencies like NASA and ESA to get their spacecraft to the outer planets faster.
NASA’s 2001 Genesis mission, which collected a sample of solar wind particles and returned them to Earth for analysis, and its upcoming missions and Artemis to the moon were designed using multiple dynamics.
Meanwhile, the so-called Lagrange points, regions of relative gravitational stability, have become the outpost of more than a dozen space missions.
“But unlike the slow, yet fuel-efficient secondary lanes used previously, the routes represented in our study are very fast,” Professor Rosengren told MailOnline.
“Certainly there are new opportunities, not only for interplanetary travel but also for the Earth-Moon system, that need more treatment.”
The findings were published in the journal Science Advances.
WHERE ARE THE TRAVELERS NOW?
Voyager 1 is currently 13 billion miles from Earth, traveling north through space.
The probe recently sent data to NASA that cosmic rays are up to four times more abundant in interstellar space than in the vicinity of Earth.
This suggests that the heliosphere, the region of space that contains the planets in our solar system, can act as a radiation shield.
Meanwhile, Voyager 2 is now 11.6 billion miles from Earth, traveling south into the interstellar region.
The contrasting locations of the two spacecraft allow scientists to compare two regions of space where the heliosphere interacts with the interstellar medium.
Voyager 2’s crossover into the interstellar medium allows scientists to sample the medium from two different locations at the same time.