Comet Interceptor approved for construction

Science and Exploration

06/08/2022
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ESA’s Comet Interceptor mission to visit a pristine comet or other interstellar object just beginning its journey into the Solar System was ‘adopted’ this week; the study phase is complete and, after the selection of the main contractor for the spacecraft, work will begin shortly to build the mission.

The Comet Interceptor will share a journey into space with ESA’s Ariel exoplanet mission in 2029. The mission will build on the successes of ESA’s Rosetta and Giotto missions that visited ‘short-period’ comets. While these missions have completely transformed our understanding of comets, their targets have revolved around the Sun many times and therefore have changed significantly since their inception.

Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud in context

The Comet Interceptor aims to examine a comet that has spent a short time inside the Solar System, or is possibly visiting it for the first time. While Rosetta’s target came from the rocky Kuiper Belt, just beyond Neptune, the Comet Interceptor could originate from the vast Oort Cloud, more than a thousand times farther from the Sun.

Although they are much rarer, a different potential target could be an ‘interstellar intruder’ from outside the Solar System – something similar to ‘Oumuamua which unexpectedly passed the Sun in 2017. Studying such an object could offer the chance to explore how the comet-like bodies form and evolve in other star systems.

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, target of ESA’s Rosetta mission

The Comet Interceptor was adopted by the ESA during the Agency’s Scientific Program Committee meeting on 8 June. The mission is led by ESA with support from the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA).

“The adoption of the Comet Interceptor builds on the advances of our visionary Giotto and Rosetta missions, accelerating us into next-level comet science,” says Science Director Günther Hasinger ESA. “This will keep European scientists at the forefront of comet research and position ESA as a leader in this exciting field.”

The Comet Interceptor will consist of a main spacecraft and two probes, which will surround the comet to observe it from various angles. In this way, the innovative mission will build a 3D profile of its undiscovered target. ESA is responsible for the main spacecraft and one of the spacecraft, while JAXA is responsible for the second spacecraft.

“A comet in its first orbit around the Sun would contain unprocessed material from the beginning of the Solar System,” explains Michael Küppers, scientist on the ESA’s Comet Interceptor study. “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.”

Journey to a Comet

Location of the Lagrangian point (L2)

The Comet Interceptor was proposed to the ESA in July 2018 and selected in June 2019. It is an example of a ‘fast’ or F-class mission, which takes only about eight years from selection to launch. These smaller missions weigh less than 1,000 kg.

The mission is expected to launch in conjunction with ESA’s Ariel exoplanet study mission in 2029. The two missions will travel together to L2 – a location 1.5 million km ‘behind’ Earth as seen from the Sun. There, the Comet Interceptor will await a suitable target. Once one is identified and selected, the mission will continue on its journey.

With recent advances in ground-based telescopes, ‘new’ comets are typically detected more than a year before their closest approach to the Sun. This is still a very short time frame to plan, build and launch a dedicated space mission. But it’s enough time for the Comet Interceptor, which is ready and waiting, to travel from L2 to the comet’s location.

Operating spacecraft in millions of kilometers of space is always a challenge, but the Comet Interceptor has a truly unique flight profile. Navigating the spacecraft towards the target comet, releasing the probes at the right time and performing a flyby will require steady hands and calm heads from the ESA mission operations team.

A visionary mission – with benefits in space and on Earth

Artist’s impression of ‘Oumuamua

The three flight elements – the main spacecraft and two smaller probes – that make up the Comet Interceptor will be equipped with different high-tech instruments that will help us discover more about the dynamic nature of a pristine comet. ESA will lead the development of the main spacecraft and one of the probes, both carrying unique instruments built primarily by European industry. The other probe will be developed by JAXA.

The Comet Interceptor has innovative goals to characterize the surface composition, shape and structure of an untouched comet for the first time and investigate the composition of its coma of gas and dust. In some cases, this will require refining existing technologies, boosting the space and engineering industries in many ESA Member States.

“As with most ESA missions, the Comet Interceptor will encourage collaboration between different companies, institutes and countries and accelerate the development of innovative technologies that may have completely different applications in the future,” says Nicola Rando, project manager for the Comet Interceptor at ESA. ESA.

The Comet Interceptor is also contributing to ESA’s planetary defense efforts. We know of almost 120 comets and more than 29,000 asteroids that approach Earth in their orbit around the Sun. By studying these objects, not only do we uncover 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. The Comet Interceptor joins a fleet of world missions related to planetary defense, including ESA’s Hera mission, which is involved in the world’s first asteroid deflection test.

Nicola concludes: “Having spent the last few years conceiving and developing the Comet Interceptor concept, we are now ready to take the mission to the next stage by selecting the prime contractor and starting the implementation phase.”

For more information please contact:

ESA media relations
media@esa.int

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