If you’ve had the pleasure of speeding down an open freeway, now imagine driving on a fast lane through space.
In a recent study, a group of astronomers claim to have discovered a network of “celestial highways” that could send spacecraft to remote regions of the solar system at unprecedented speeds.
The researcher’s calculations show that thanks to these highways, an asteroid could travel from Jupiter to Neptune in less than a decade.
An object traveling for a century on a celestial highway could travel a distance of 9 billion miles or one hundred times the distance between the Earth and the Sun.
How do these cosmic highways work and what do they tell us about the universe?
An invisible corridor
“To put it simply, these highways are produced by the planets,” says Aaron Rosengren, one of the study’s authors and professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of California, San Diego (USA), in a statement.
These expeditious routes are formed by the force of gravitational attraction between the planets, creating an invisible corridor that stretches from the asteroid belt between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars, to beyond Uranus.
Using computer simulations and analysis of millions of orbits in the solar system, experts have noticed that arcs form around each planet, which in turn form what they call “space collectors.”
Arcs and collectors are produced by the interaction of gravity between two orbiting objects.
This creates a “gravitational corridor,” as Shane Ross, an aerospace engineer at Virginia Tech, calls it in a Live Science article.
This video shows a simulation of the formation of arcs along a space collector over a period of 120 years:
Although invisible, computer simulations show how the trajectory of particles approaching planets like Jupiter, Uranus or Neptune is affected when they enter collectors.
Further, they note that “every planet generates these arcs and all of these structures can interact with each other to produce complicated transport routes,” according to Rosengren.
Scientists already know that each planet can form its own “celestial highway circuit“, but it’s only now that they are discovering that these roads can intersect with those of other planets to form a more complex network.
The Great Celestial Highway of Jupiter
The largest number of highways the researchers detected were found in the area influenced by gravitational forces on Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system.
Jupiter’s collectors could explain the behavior of comets and asteroids that tend to prowl around the planet before going out of orbit.
“It’s amazing the depth to which collectors emanating from Jupiter can penetrate the solar system,” Rosengren tells Live Science.
How to use these fast space highways?
Understanding how this network of highways works, including those that are close to Earth, can be a key to using them as fast lanes for space travel that can go further in less time.
Also, explain the study’s authors, it could be useful to monitor the trajectory of objects that could collide with our planet, as well as to monitor the growing number of artificial satellites floating between the Earth and the Moon.