ESA’s Comet Interceptor mission to visit a pristine comet or other interstellar object just beginning its journey through the inner solar system was “adopted” this week; the study phase has been completed and, after selection of the spacecraft prime contractor, construction work for the mission will soon begin.
Comet Interceptor will share a spin in space with ESA’s Ariel exoplanet mission in 2029. The mission will build on the successes of Rosetta and Giotto, ESA’s missions that have both visited comets at “short period”. Although these missions completely transformed our understanding of comets, their targets had already orbited the Sun several times and had therefore changed significantly since their creation.
Comet Interceptor aims to peer into a comet that has spent a short time in the inner solar system, or perhaps is visiting it for the first time. While Rosetta’s target came from the rocky Kuiper Belt just beyond Neptune, Comet Interceptor’s could come from the vast Oort Cloud, more than a thousand times farther from the Sun.
Although much rarer, a different potential target could be an “interstellar intruder” from outside the solar system – something similar to “Oumuamua which unexpectedly flew past the Sun in 2017. The study ‘Such an object could provide the opportunity to explore how comet-like bodies form and evolve in other star systems.
Comet Interceptor was adopted by ESA at the Agency’s Scientific Program Committee meeting on June 8. The mission is led by ESA with support from the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA).
“The adoption of Comet Interceptor builds on the breakthroughs of our visionary Giotto and Rosetta missions, accelerating us towards next-level comet science,” said Günther Hasinger, ESA Chief Science Officer. “This will keep European scientists at the forefront of cometary research and position ESA as a leader in this exciting field.”
Comet Interceptor will consist of a main spacecraft and two probes, which will surround the comet to observe it from several angles. In this way, the innovative mission will build a 3D profile of its still unknown target. ESA is responsible for the main spacecraft and one of the probes, while JAXA is responsible for the second probe.
“A comet on its first orbit around the Sun would contain unprocessed material dating back to the dawn of the solar system,” says Michael Küppers, ESA’s Comet Interceptor study scientist. “Studying such an object and sampling this material will not only help us better understand comets, but also how the solar system formed and evolved over time.”
Journey to a comet
Comet Interceptor was proposed to ESA in July 2018 and selected in June 2019. It is an example of a “fast” or Class F mission, which takes only about eight years from selection to launch . These small missions weigh less than 1000 kg.
The mission is set to launch alongside ESA’s Ariel exoplanet survey mission in 2029. The two missions will travel together to L2, a location 1.5 million kilometers ‘behind’ Earth, seen of the Sun. There, Comet Interceptor will wait for a suitable target. Once one is spotted and selected, the mission will continue its journey.
With recent advances in ground-based telescopes, “new” comets are now typically detected more than a year before their closest approach to the Sun. It’s still too short to plan, build and launch a dedicated space mission. But there is enough time for the ready and waiting Comet Interceptor to move from L2 to the comet’s location.
Operating spacecraft through millions of miles of space is always a challenge, but Comet Interceptor has a truly unique flight profile. Navigating the spacecraft to the target comet, releasing the probes at the right time and performing a flyby will require steady hands and calm heads from ESA’s mission operations team.
A visionary mission – with benefits in space and on Earth
The three flight elements – the main spacecraft and two smaller probes – that make up Comet Interceptor will each be equipped with different high-tech instruments that will help us learn more about the dynamic nature of a pristine comet. ESA will lead the development of the main spacecraft and one of the probes, both equipped with unique instruments built mainly by European industry. The other probe will be developed by JAXA.
Comet Interceptor has the revolutionary goal of characterizing for the very first time the composition, shape and surface structure of a virgin comet and studying the composition of its gas and dust coma. In some cases, this will require refining existing technologies, which will boost the space and engineering industries in many ESA Member States.
“As with most ESA missions, Comet Interceptor will motivate collaboration between different companies, institutes and countries, and accelerate the development of innovative technologies that may have completely different applications in the future,” said Nicola Rando, head of ESA’s Comet Interceptor project.
Comet Interceptor also contributes to ESA’s planetary defense efforts. We know of nearly 120 comets and more than 29,000 asteroids that come close to Earth in their orbit around the Sun. By studying these objects, not only do we uncover the secrets of the solar system, but we also become better equipped to protect our planet if and when one is discovered on a collision course with Earth. Comet Interceptor joins a fleet of global planetary defense missions, including ESA’s Hera mission, which is taking part in the world’s first asteroid deflection test.
Nicola concludes: “Having spent the last few years designing and developing the Comet Interceptor concept, we are now ready to take the mission to the next stage, selecting the prime contractor and then launching the commissioning phase. implemented.
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