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The hunt for a distant cosmic wanderer: A new European comet program may be on the right track

The European Space Agency (ESA) Comet Interceptor mission has been unleashed, which will visit a comet or interstellar object entering our Solar System for the first time. The mission study phase is now complete, so construction of the spacecraft may begin soon. The Comet Interceptor will launch alongside the ESA Ariel exoplanet hunter spacecraft on the Ariane 6.2 launch vehicle in 2029. The mission builds on the success of previous ESA programs Rosetta and Giotto, which visited short-lived comets. Thanks to their results, our image of comets has changed dramatically – their targets have already orbited our Sun several times, significantly changing them from their initial state.

Comet Interceptor is planning to visit a comet that has spent very little time in the inner solar system so far, or even for the first time. While Rosetta’s target originated from the Kuiper belt region outside Neptune, the comet’s interceptor could come from the vast Oort Cloud, a thousand times from the Sun.

Comparison of the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud. (Source: European Space Agency)

Although this is much rarer, another potential target for the mission could be an interstellar visitor from outside the solar system, such as Oumuamua in 2017. Examining such an object would give us insight into how comet-like objects formed and evolved in star systems other. The ESA Comet Interceptor mission, which was launched with the support of the Japan Aerospace Agency (JAXA), received the final green light at the meeting of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Scientific Committee on June 8.

The comet interceptor will consist of a main spacecraft and two smaller probes that can take measurements from multiple angles surrounding the target comet simultaneously; Thanks to the innovative method, a 3D profile of an undetected object will be created. The main unit and one probe are handled by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the other probe by JAXA. A comet that wasn’t close to our sun probably hasn’t changed nearly since the birth of our solar system. If we take a closer look at such a “pristine” object, we can get a wealth of new information not only about comets in general, but also about the origin and evolution of the solar system.

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The target of the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission is comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. (Source: ESA / Rosetta / NAVCAM)

The Comet Interceptor mission was proposed to ESA decision makers in July 2018 and selected in June 2019 as a program worth developing. It is rated in Class F (i.e. fast class, English fast It takes about eight years from selection to launch. These smaller missions weigh less than 1,000kg each.

Together with the ESA Ariel mission, they will reach Lagrange Point L2 after launch in 2029. It is about 1.5 million kilometers from Earth in the opposite direction from the Sun. The comet interceptor will orbit around this point until a suitable filter appears in our solar system; As soon as the long-awaited object arrives, the spacecraft sets out.

The location of the Comet Interceptor waiting point and subsequent meeting point near the level of the ecliptic. (Source: Ákos Kereszturi)

Thanks to the continuous development of ground-based telescopes, “new” comets are now usually detected a year before they approach the Sun. However, this period is still short enough to design, build and launch a custom spacecraft; However, it is enough for the launch-ready Comet Interceptor to reach its destination before it gets too close to the sun.

Comet Interceptor will first examine the ancient comet’s surface composition, shape and structure, and the composition of a gas and powder coma that has not yet been altered by its interaction with the Sun. It is also part of the European Space Agency’s Planetary Protection Programme. We now know of approximately 120 comets and more than 29,000 asteroids orbiting the Earth around the Sun. By examining these objects, we are not only looking for an answer to the mysteries of our solar system, but we are also preparing for what we can do if we encounter a celestial body traveling in orbit with the Earth.

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The Comet Interceptor space probe contains many galactic components, for example, the digital processing and data recording unit of the camera is being developed by Remred and SGF Kft. In collaboration with the Earth and Astronomy Research Center, and Admatis Kft.

source: and the