Fast superhighway through the Solar System discovered

A new 'superhighway' network running through the Solar System has been discovered by astronomers, and it 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 computed how they fit together and interact.


The highways allow objects to move through space much faster than previously thought possible – for example, travelling between Jupiter and Neptune in under a decade.  


One day, NASA or other space agencies could make use of these superhighways to speed up travel time from the Earth to distant parts of the Solar System, but the team can't yet say how it would work or how much faster journeys would become.


The highways allow space rocks to travel through space far faster than previously thought - for example, travelling between Jupiter and Neptune in under a decade


To discover these 'celestial autobahns', the team looked at space manifolds – invisible structures consisting of a series of connected arches, which are generated by gravitational interactions in the Solar System.


In order to understand how these arches interconnect, 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 observed the structures between objects extending from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter to Uranus and beyond.


Space manifolds act as the boundaries of dynamical channels – that is connections between gravitational interactions – enabling fast transportation into the inner and outermost 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 thee Earth - to just beyond Uranus at 20 AU


Dynamical map of a zoomed-in portion of the first image and another made using the same orbit - showing some of the paths and structures hidden within space flinging objects


'We reveal a notable and hitherto undetected ornamental structure of manifolds, connected in a series of arches that spread from the asteroid belt to Uranus and beyond,' the team wrote in their paper.


This newly discovered celestial highway acts to shift objects over several decades, as opposed to the hundreds of thousands or millions of years in open space.


The most conspicuous arch structures are linked to Jupiter and the strong gravitational forces it exerts on the objects caught within its influence.


'Jupiter, being the most massive body in our planetary system, is responsible for most of the structures we've discovered,' study co-author Aaron J Rosengren, from the University of California San Diego, told MailOnline.


'But each planet generates similar "arches" and all of these structures can interact to produce quite complicated routes for transport.'


He added that small bodies located inside the 'manifold tubes' will follow prescribed trajectories.


'Orbits on these manifolds encounter Jupiter on rapid time scales, where they can be transformed into collisional or escaping trajectories, reaching Neptune’s distance in a mere decade,' the researchers wrote.


'All planets generate similar manifolds that permeate the Solar System, allowing fast transport throughout, a true celestial autobahn.


'It should come at no surprise that Jupiter can induce large-scale transport on decadal time scales,' the authors wrote in their paper.


This has been seen in previous space missions, specifically designed for Jupiter-assisted transport. Flybys of the two Voyager missions are prime examples.


'That gravity assists can be enabled by manifolds is also well known to astrodynamicists,' according to the US team.

'Yet, their widespread influence on natural celestial bodies has been largely undervalued and unexplored.'


This is a map of the superhighway structures surrounding Jupiter - concentrated on highly chaotic structure within the arches


Populations of Jupiter-family comets, as well as small Solar System bodies known as Centaurs, are controlled by such manifolds on unprecedented time scales.


Some of these bodies will end up colliding with Jupiter or being ejected from the Solar System – and one day arrive in a distance star system.


The structures were resolved by gathering data about millions of orbits in our Solar System and computing how these orbits fit within already-known space manifolds.


The results need to be studied further, according to the researchers, to understand how spaceships can make better use of the new superhighways.


Jovian-minimum-distance maps showing the fastest of the routes surrounding the largest planet in our solar system - triggered by its massive gravitational pull


The team also want to determine how such manifolds 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.


This could in future help astronomers and engineers understand the potential future impact on stellar dynamics of the growing population of artificial man-made objects in the Earth-Moon system.

The space highways could also one day be used by space agencies such as 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 forthcoming and Artemis missions to the moon were all designed using manifold dynamics.


Meanwhile, the so-called Lagrange points – regions of relative gravitational stability – have become the outpost of over a dozen spacecraft missions.


'But, unlike the slow, though fuel efficient, backlanes used previously, the routes depicted in our study are very fast,' Professor Rosengren told MailOnline.


'Certainly, there are new opportunities, not just for interplanetary travel but also for the Earth-Moon system, which need further treatment.'


The findings were published in the journal Science Advances.

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