Whoever builds something here will be rich beyond measure
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Since the launch of the first artificial satellite in 1957, governments, companies, and research institutions have been planting flags among the stars. But while it might seem like there's plenty of room in this vast expanse, some pieces of celestial real estate are more valuable than others. Each of these dots is a Lagrange point, and as far as human space exploration is concerned, they may be the most important places in our solar system. Named after the 18th century mathematician who deduced their positions, Lagrange points are rare places of equilibrium in our constantly shifting universe.
All celestial bodies exert a gravitational force on nearby objects, pulling them in and out of orbits. And gravity acts alongside several apparent forces to determine what those orbits look like. However, Lagrange points are places where all these forces balance out. So, if we place a relatively low mass object here, it will maintain a constant distance from the massive bodies pulling on it. Essentially, Lagrange points are celestial parking spaces— once an object is there, it requires little to no energy to stay put. So, whenever humans want to keep an object in one place for a long time without using tons of fuel, it needs to be orbiting a Lagrange point.
However, there are only so many of these parking spots. Pairs of massive bodies in our solar system generate sets of five Lagrange points. This means our Sun has five points with every planet, and our planets have five points with each of their moons. Adding these up, there are over 1,000 Lagrange points in our solar system— but only a few are useful for human purposes. Many are in locations that are too difficult to reach or simply not very useful. And for reasons we'll explain in a bit, many others are unstable. Currently, only two of these points are heavily used by humans. But we’ll likely use many more in the future— making these limited points exclusive real estate.
Which begs the question: what exactly should we park in them? That answer depends on where each point is. Consider the five Lagrange points generated by the Sun and the Earth. L1 is located inside Earth's orbit, about 1.5 million kilometers away from the planet. With this panoramic view of the Sun, unobstructed by Earth’s shadow, L1 is the perfect place for solar-observing satellites. L2 is at the same distance from Earth but outside its orbit and shielded from the Sun, making it the perfect spot to observe outer space. In 2022, the James Webb Space Telescope went online here, in a spot where the Sun and Earth only occupy a tiny fraction of the sky. L3 is in a particularly mysterious location that can never be directly observed from Earth’s surface. This has made L3 a frequent locale in science fiction, though it hasn’t offered much use to scientists yet. L4 and L5, however, are a bit different from their siblings. In every set of five, the first three Lagrange points are slightly unstable.
This means objects will slowly drift away from them, though keeping what we’ve parked there in place is still energetically cheap. The stability of L4 and L5, however, varies from set to set. If the heavier of the two bodies generating the points has less than 25 times the mass of the lighter body, these points are too unstable to park things in. However, if the heavier body is massive enough— like it is in Sun-Earth set— then the relevant forces will always return objects to these equilibrium points, making them our most stable parking spots. That’s why points like these naturally accumulate space objects, such as the Sun-Jupiter set’s L4 and L5, which host thousands of asteroids.
Every Lagrange point in our solar system has its quirks. Some might be perfect for scavenging construction materials from drifting asteroids. Others might make ideal gas stations for ships headed to deep space, or even host entire human colonies. These points are already home to advanced technological achievements, but soon, they could become our stepping stones to the stars.
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