(ORDO NEWS) — The ESA Comet Interceptor mission was “approved” this week to visit a pristine comet or other interstellar object just beginning its journey into the inner solar system.
The research phase has been completed, and after the selection of the general contractor for the spacecraft, work on the creation of the mission will soon begin.
Comet Interceptor will launch into space with ESA’s Ariel exoplanet mission in 2029. This mission will build on the success of the ESA missions Rosetta and Giotto, which visited “short-period” comets.
Although these missions have completely changed our understanding of comets, their objects have already orbited the Sun many times and therefore have changed significantly since their inception.
The goal of the Comet Interceptor is to carefully study a comet that has spent little time in the inner solar system, or may be visiting it for the first time.
While the target of the Rosetta mission came from the rocky Kuiper belt just past Neptune, the comet for the Interceptor could be from a huge Oort cloud more than a thousand times farther from the Sun.
Although they are much rarer, another potential target could be an “interstellar alien” from outside the solar system – something like Oumuamua that unexpectedly flew past the Sun in 2017.
Studying such an object could provide an opportunity to explore how comet-like bodies form and evolve in other star systems.
The Comet Interceptor project was accepted by the ESA at a meeting of the Agency’s Science Program Committee on June 8. The mission is led by ESA with support from the Japan Space Agency (JAXA).
“The adoption of the Comet Interceptor project builds on the achievements of our visionary Giotto and Rosetta missions, accelerating us on the path to next-level comet science,” says ESA Director of Science Günther Hasinger.
“This will enable European scientists to remain at the forefront of cometary research and position ESA as a leader in this exciting field.”
The Comet Interceptor will consist of a main spacecraft and two probes that will surround the comet to observe it from different angles.
Thus, the innovative mission will create a three-dimensional profile of its yet undiscovered goal. ESA is responsible for the main spacecraft and one of the probes, while JAXA is responsible for the second probe.
“A comet in its first orbit around the Sun will contain raw material from the early days of the solar system,” explains Michael Küppers, ESA research scientist for the new mission.
“Studying such an object and taking samples of this material will help us understand not only more about comets, but also about how the solar system formed and evolved over time.”
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