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A unique origins survey: Gaia-enabled occultation measurements of small bodies in the outer solar system

Presentation #311.02 in the session Plenary Session: Bold Ideas.

Published onOct 20, 2022
A unique origins survey: Gaia-enabled occultation measurements of small bodies in the outer solar system

One of the big questions in planetary science is knowing how the process of solar system formation really works. The outer solar system has become a crucial component supporting ongoing research by providing observational constraints that have led to fundamental improvements in the past few decades. Recently, the New Horizons flyby of Arrokoth provided an unprecedented view of an ancient remnant of what looks to be a direct result of the accretion process with little to no subsequent external processing or alterations. We cannot expect hundreds or thousands of such direct spacecraft investigations any time soon but increasing our sample of well-studied small bodies in the outer solar is surely to reap benefits we can’t even begin to dream of. The lessons provided by Arrokoth can be built upon and such a population study is within our grasp. The double-lobed nature of Arrokoth was deduced prior to the New Horizons flyby thanks to timely stellar occultation observations enabled by the results from ESA’s Gaia Mission, an unparalleled catalog of stellar position, distances, and kinematic states that have, in turn, unlocked the door to widespread studies of the outer solar system. Stellar occultations can probe these bodies at a spatial scale and heliocentric distance beyond what even the biggest and most expensive telescopes can achieve and can bridge the gap between these near-Earth facilities and what our spacecraft missions can accomplish on far fewer objects. The technical means to do so are within our reach. The missing elements are the widespread recognition of the promise of occultations and finding an appropriate level of support that will enable these fundamentally important investigations. Doing so requires a new way of thinking all the way from the roots of the scientific community up through the funding agencies. This presentation will discuss the scientific returns we can expect while laying out the framework required to take advantage of the opportunity that lies before us.

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