The European Space Agency (ESA) has approved a new mission to visit a comet and other interstellar objects that have just started their journey into the inner Solar System. The Comet Interceptor will be launched with the Ariel exoplanet mission in 2029.
The probe aims to explore a comet that has spent little time in the inner Solar System, or is possibly visiting it for the first time. The spacecraft will build on the work done by Rosetta and Giotto probes that both visited ‘short-period’ comets. Whilst Rosetta’s target hailed from the rocky Kuiper Belt just beyond Neptune, Comet Interceptor’s could originate from the vast Oort Cloud, over a thousand times further from the Sun.
The mission concept was first approved during the Agency’s Science Programme Committee meeting and will be developed jointly with the Japanese space agency JAXA. “The adoption of Comet Interceptor builds upon the breakthroughs of our visionary Giotto and Rosetta missions, accelerating us towards next-level comet science. It will keep European scientists at the forefront of cometary research and position ESA as a leader in this exciting field,” Günther Hasinger, ESA’s Director of Science, said in a statement.
The spacecraft will have two probes, which will surround the comet to observe it from multiple angles. Scientists aim to build a 3D profile of its as-yet-undiscovered target.
“A comet on its first orbit around the Sun would contain unprocessed material from the dawn of the Solar System. Studying such an object and sampling this material will help us understand not only more about comets but also how the Solar System formed and evolved over time,” ESA’s Comet Interceptor study scientist Michael Küppers said.
The spacecraft once launched will travel to L2 a location 1.5 million km ‘behind’ Earth as viewed from the Sun as it awaits the arrival of its target comet. Once one is spotted and selected, the mission will continue its journey. ESA said that ‘new’ comets are now typically detected more than a year before their closest approach to the Sun, while it’s still short notice, it will be enough time for the ready-and-waiting Comet Interceptor to travel from L2 to the comet’s location.
Once the spacecraft intercepts the approaching comet, it will help in understanding the dynamic nature of the object, characterise the surface composition, shape, and structure. “By studying these objects, we not only uncover secrets of the Solar System but also become better equipped to protect our planet if and when one is discovered on a collision course with Earth,” the space agency said.