The strangest objects in the solar system are unlocking their history

Engraved illustration of an eye with a comet crossing the center

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

A bevy of upcoming space missions will give scientists unprecedented views of some of the strangest objects in the solar system.

Why it matters: The solar system remains a largely mysterious place. Scientists aren’t sure exactly how the planets came together billions of years ago or how life developed on Earth, and whether it took root on other worlds.

  • The strange properties of strange objects it could reveal something about our universe that is not available through better-studied objects in the solar system.
  • “We don’t have to go to really strange and exotic places, but it could be that some of these strange and exotic places are the key to understanding a particular question,” says Paul Byrne, a planetary scientist at Washington University in St. Louis. .

What’s happening: Next year, NASA will send a robotic mission to Psyche, a largely metallic asteroid believed to be the leftover core of a long-dead planet that formed early in the solar system’s history.

  • The agency’s Dragonfly spacecraft, due to launch in 2026, will explore Titan, one of Saturn’s moons with lakes of liquid methane and hydrocarbon dunes, to search for signs of life and possibly learn more about its origin in the solar system.
  • A NASA mission targeting a group of asteroids near the orbit of Jupiter, Lucy will strive to learn more about those space rocks, believed to be extremely ancient and left over from the dawn of the solar system.

Context: Learning more about solar system outliers has already changed scientists’ understanding of how the planets in our solar system function and evolve.

  • When NASA’s New Horizons flew by Pluto, it found a world rich in geology, something researchers didn’t think was possible so far from the Sun in an extremely cold part of space.
  • Pluto’s mountains and plains have forced researchers to re-examine entrenched ideas about how a planet cools and what the worlds beyond Neptune might be like.
  • “We’re learning how planets work…just by visiting an outlying planet and being confused by what we find there,” says NASA astronomer Henry Throop.

the intrigue: Understanding outliers not only provides clues about the solar system, but can also help scientists learn more about worlds and objects far from Earth.

  • “Our solar system is an example of a planetary system. And it’s also a snapshot in time of a system,” says NASA scientist Megan Ansdell. “So there’s a lot to learn in our solar system, but it’s also just one example.”

  • It’s possible that strange objects in our solar system are actually common in others, so learning more about them gives scientists access to what other star systems might look like.

For example, Arrokoth – an object studied by New Horizons after its encounter with Pluto – looked very different from what scientists expected, but could be representative of what other objects in their part of space look like.

  • The strange thing is that it can be roughly the same shape as ‘Oumuamuathe first confirmed interstellar object to traverse our solar system, Byrne said.
  • “Arrokoth is strange looking,” Byrne said. “It just doesn’t look good because it has had a completely different formation and impact history than anything that has been closer to the Sun.”

The panorama: NASA and other agencies have limited funds to dedicate to various space missions, so they must choose destinations based on the scientific output they can get.

  • And strange objects, like Pluto, Titan, Psyche, and others, could provide the biggest scientific investment.
  • “The whole point of looking at something weird is because that’s where we learn things,” Throop says.

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