The Comet Interceptor mission will study comets very closely
– News of July 2, 2019 –
ESA has just validated a new mission for the next decade as part of its Cosmic Vision program. This mission is called Comet Interceptor. Since its creation, ESA has specialized in comet exploration. Thanks to this new mission, the European space agency wants to visit a comet that has traveled a lot. Long-lived comets are thought to have originated from Oort cloud, a hypothetical sphere of icy objects at a great distance from the sun. The orbit of these objects is sometimes disturbed and sends them into the internal solar system. As they are mainly composed of volatile ice, their passage close to the sun vaporizes them slowly. Huge tails of dust then appear, which has fascinated humanity for thousands of years.
With the Comet Interceptor mission, ESA wants to explore a new comet that has just been expelled from Oort cloud and will make its first passage near the sun. It would be the perfect opportunity to discover such unaltered objects, without having to travel 300 years to the Oort cloud. The mission could also target an Oumuamua-type interstellar object, which might be an even more interesting target.
Comet Interceptor does not have predefined targets yet. The mission may not even have it the day of its launch. It is very difficult to discover a new comet a very long time in advance, at best we identify them a few months or years before their passage near the sun, which is far too short to prepare a dedicated mission. ESA will therefore experiment with a new architecture that will allow a quick reaction when an interesting and inter-acceptable object is detected.
After its launch, Comet Interceptor will set up around the L2 Lagrange point of the Sun-Earth system and wait for terrestrial telescopes to identify a target. It will then have to use its own means of propulsion to put itself on an interception trajectory. Once in the vicinity, the mission will release three small complementary probes that will analyze the object. To enable the launch to take place in 2028, ESA has selected some instruments already developed for other missions. The camera will be the same as that of ExoMars TGO, and the dust detectors or the mass spectrometer are from the Rosetta program. Overall, Comet Interceptor will have a mass of one ton.
Since the discovery of Oumuamua in 2017, we want to learn more about these interstellar objects. We could have the first close-up photos of an object from another system. Let’s hope that by 2028 our detection methods are progressing. The launch of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) at the beginning of the next decade opens up good prospects. The telescope will scrutinize the solar system permanently in search of new objects. We hope, for example, that it will grow our catalogs of asteroids by a factor of 10 to 100. Perhaps it will be able to see a new asteroid of the same type as Oumuamua arrive just in time for Comet Interceptor to turn on its engines. But it would be as good to observe closely an object from the Oort cloud.
Image by ESA/Comet Interceptor