A bold plan to study a ‘pristine’ comet is taking shape
The European Space Agency announced yesterday that it had signed a contract with private space company OHB to build the Comet Interceptor, a spacecraft to study an as-yet-unidentified pristine comet from the Oort cloud, scheduled to launch in 2029.
The partnership between ESA and Italian arm of OHB will bring Comet Interceptor to life. The spacecraft will eventually work some 930,000 miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth in Lagrange point 2, which is behind our planet as seen from the Sun (fun fact: the recently deployed Webb Telescope is currently working on L2). Once there, it will wait while astronomers search for a suitable target, at which point it will be dispatched and sent on an exploratory mission.
Probes have visited comets before, the rosetta mission being a recent example, but Comet Interceptor is different in that its purpose is to investigate a pristine comet, that is, a comet entering the solar system for the first time. Non-pristine comets have come close to the inner solar system at least once before, a journey towards the Sun that fundamentally alters the volatile features of a comet’s surface, obscuring its original composition.
Comets occasionally emerge from the Oort cloud, a spherical band of icy planetesimals at the outer edge of the Solar System. It’s impossible to predict when a pristine comet will make a sudden guest appearance, so Comet Interceptor is being sent out in anticipation of astronomers spotting a suitable target. Stationed at L2, the probe will be well positioned to intercept the comet and document what will be a fleeting celestial event.
When an incoming pristine comet is detected, a Comet Interceptor will be sent to rendezvous with the body in space, studying it from multiple vantage points. Pristine comets and the gas tails they produce as they approach the Sun may offer great insight into the origin of the solar system, as these dirty snowballs, as they are often called, have yet to be weathered by a journey to the sun If an interstellar asteroid, such as ‘Oumuamua and Borisovthe only two we’ve detected so far, showed up, Comet Interceptor could study that as well.
“Comet Interceptor is an ambitious mission requiring a unique spacecraft, in fact three novel spacecraft, and after an intensive phase of study and planning, we are ready to start building the European elements,” said Nicola Rando, manager of the ESA’s Comet Interceptor project. ESA press release.
Details about the three spacecraft that will make up Comet Interceptor are scant, but the ESA says Comet Interceptor will consist of a main spacecraft and two probes. ESA will develop the main spacecraft and one of the probes, which will carry scientific instruments developed by industry and European institutions, while the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency will provide the other probe and its instruments.
“Comet Interceptor’s groundbreaking goals include characterizing the surface composition, shape and structure of a pristine comet for the first time and sampling the composition of its gas and dust coma,” said Michael Kueppers, Comet Study Scientist. ESA Interceptor, in the ESA statement. . “Having access to this material is vital to understanding our origins, in terms of how our Solar System formed and evolved over time.”
Comet Interceptor was approved as a project in 2019 and its launch is scheduled for 2029. Now that the agreement between ESA and OHB has been signed, the design and construction of Comet Intercept can officially start.
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