Dr. Damon Landau, Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Rendezvous with an Interstellar Object: Exotic Approaches to Access Exotic Targets
October 1, 2021


Interstellar Objects (ISOs), a new and exciting class of asteroids and comets, offer a unique scientific opportunity to answer fundamental scientific questions about the origin of solar system volatiles, the compositions of exo-solar systems, and the transfer rates of material between solar systems. The first of these objects, 1I/ʼOumuamua, was discovered in 2017. A second object, comet 2I/Borisov, was identified in 2019, and many more are expected to be found with the introduction of the Vera C. Rubin Observatory. To reap the maximum scientific benefit of ISO exploration, orbital rendezvous missions offer the only means for literal ground truth into the diversity of planetary systems in the Milky Way. Mission design and propulsion capability are the key challenges for future ISO concepts due to the transient nature of ISO paths through the Solar System. These challenges may be overcome with a trade space of detection capabilities, launch vehicles, trajectory designs, and near-term spacecraft technology development. In particular, the combination of Jupiter's gravity assist and nuclear electric propulsion provides the highest likelihood of delivering a spacecraft to match the orbit of an ISO. These objects represent a whole new class of missions to targets that no one has seen before – the pinnacle of exploration!


Dr. Damon Landau

Systems Engineer at JPL, where his primary interests are mission formulation and trajectory optimization. During his 14 years at JPL Damon, he has designed missions to all of the planets, many of their moons, and to multiple small bodies throughout the solar system. He routinely leads the systems engineering development for proposals to NASA's Earth Venture Mission, MIDEX, SIMPLEx, Discovery, and New Frontiers programs. He formulated the initial trajectory concepts for the Discovery mission to Psyche, the Near-Earth Asteroid Scout sailcraft, and the twin MarCO relay CubeSats, while his trajectory software has been used in over 20 Discovery and New Frontiers proposals, Decadal Surveys and Directed Flagship studies, and NASA flight projects. He received his B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. in Aeronautics and Astronautics from Purdue University.