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Friday, December 09, 2022

The European Space Agency (ESA) has approved a new mission called Comet Interceptor, which will launch without a specific target in mind, rather than waiting.

The European Space Agency (ESA) has approved a new mission called Comet Interceptor, which will launch without a specific target in mind, rather than waiting for a visitor from the outer reaches of the Solar System, or possibly from another star. Will do The comet interceptor could provide researchers with their first look at ancient material far beyond the reach of the Sun, or perhaps reveal the chemical composition of other worlds.

It will be the first probe to be deployed in orbit, which will be ready to fly over the target at any time. “We’re taking a lot of risk,” says Günther Hasinger, ESA’s head of science. “However, the payoff is substantial.”

The mission, first put forward in 2019, will launch in 2028 with a new telescope, Ariel, designed to study exoplanets’ atmospheres. The two will travel to the second Lagrange point (L2), a point of gravitational stability 1.5 million kilometers from Earth — beyond the Moon’s orbit — where the James Webb Space Telescope, launched late last year, also resides.

Here, Comet Interceptor – the first of ESA’s ‘F-class’ rapid-development missions – will float in space while scientists search for a suitable target to return to Earth. The goal is to find an ancient comet in a wide orbit over hundreds of years, known as a long-period comet, entering the solar system for the first time. Such a comet may have originated from a vast region of icy objects called the Oort Cloud, which exists far beyond Neptune in the outer Solar System. No mission has visited such an object before. Other missions, such as ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft, have visited comets of shorter duration, which spend more time in the inner Solar System in shorter orbits and are thus more heavily replaced by the Sun.

The mission will consist of a main spacecraft and two smaller probes, one of which will be developed by the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA). Following the mission’s approval last week, ESA will now select a prime contractor to develop the main spacecraft, one of two competing designs from Thales Alenia Space in the United Kingdom and OHB Italia in Italy.

“The Comet Interceptor is going to give us the first real glimpse of an elemental body,” says Alan Fitzsimmons, a comet researcher at Queen’s University Belfast, UK, who is not involved with the mission. “We don’t know what it will look like. It will be really new, never-before-seen science.”

Once the spacecraft is located at L2, it can wait there for at least six years for a suitable target to move close enough to Earth’s orbit. When this happens, Comet Interceptor will fire its thrusters and leave L2 on a fly-by course. The main spacecraft will fly at a distance of about 1,000 kilometers from the comet to avoid any damage to nearby material, while the smaller probes will dive closer, closer to 400 kilometers from the surface.

rich rewards
The entire encounter will last only a few hours, but the scientific rewards are considerable and cannot be matched by remote observations with binoculars, including the first close-up images of the comet’s composition, gas and dust emitted, its temperature, and more. Such an ancient icy object. This will give a window on the material that formed at the beginning of the Solar System 4.5 billion years ago. “It’s a message in a bottle from the formation period,” says Michael Kuepers at ESA in Madrid, Comet Interceptor’s project scientist.

More than a dozen long-period comets enter the inner Solar System each year, although not all of them will be accessible by Comet Interceptor. The team estimates an 80% chance that a suitably long-period comet will emerge at the time of comet interceptor at L2. Such comets are only observable a few months before their closest approach in the inner Solar System, so having a spacecraft ready at L2 should make a fly-by easier than trying to organize a launch at short notice from Earth. goes. In the unlikely event of a suitable long-period comet not being able to arrive, the mission would be rerouted to go to another target, such as 73P/Schwesmann–Wachmann 3, a short-period comet that had broken into pieces. It is believed to be gone.

However, an even more attractive prospect is on offer. In the past five years, two objects have been observed flying over our Sun that are believed to have been ejected from other solar systems, ‘Oumuamua in 2017 and Comet Borisov in 2019. Telescopic observations provided a tentative glimpse of these fleeting visitors, and sent one. The spacecraft can tell researchers a lot about their compositions, water content and the system they generated. If the comet is at interceptor L2, such an object is observed, and if the object passes close enough to be observable, spacecraft may instead be sent to intercept it, allowing us to pass through another solar system. Unprecedented glimpses of the material. “The interstellar-object aspect is extremely exciting,” says planetary scientist Geraint Jones at University College London, who led the team proposing the mission to ESA. “The chances of finding a suitable interstellar target are slim. But we will keep an eye.”

“This is the first time that such a rapid response mission has been done,” Kuppers says. “We don’t expect to have a huge number of potential targets. If we have a good target, we’ll go for it.”

News Summary:

  • The European Space Program That Wants to Stop a Comet
  • Check out all the news and articles from the latest space news updates.
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