ESA has approved the Comet Interceptor – Puls Kosmosu probe for construction

Comet Interceptor, a daring mission prepared by the European Space Agency that aims to target the so-called virgin comet or other interstellar object that may just begin its journey into the inner solar system, was approved for deployment on Wednesday. The research phase is over and construction work will start shortly after the selection of the main contractor. Interestingly, the Polish Space Research Center of the Polish Academy of Sciences is involved in the mission’s implementation project.

The Comet Interceptor will be launched into space in 2029 from the Ariel exoplanet observatory. The probe should build on the successes of ESA’s Rosetta and Giotto missions, which have already proven that we can study comets closely. Rosetta made the first historic comet landing. This took place in 2014. CBK PAN also took part in this mission. And while Rosetta and Giotto have completely changed our understanding of comets, the celestial bodies they study have repeatedly orbited the sun and have therefore changed significantly since their inception.

The Comet Interceptor, on the other hand, aims to study a comet that has spent little time in the inner solar system or is visiting it for the first time. Such comets are called Virgo. Another potential target could be an “interstellar invader” outside the solar system — something akin to the “Oumuamua” that passed the sun unexpectedly in 2017. Studying such an object could provide an opportunity to find out how comet-like bodies form and evolve in other galaxies.

The Comet Interceptor will consist of the main spacecraft and two probes that will surround the comet to observe it from many angles. For example, the innovative mission builds a 3D profile of its undiscovered target. ESA is responsible for the main spacecraft and one probe, while JAXA is responsible for the other probe.

“A comet in its first orbit around the sun would contain raw material from the beginning of the solar system,” explains Michael Küppers, an ESA comet interceptor scientist. “Studying such an object and sampling it will not only allow us to understand the comets themselves, but it will also help us learn more about how the solar system has formed and developed over time.”

Professor Hanna Rothkaehl of the Space Research Center of the Polish Academy of Sciences is the Principal Investigator (PI) of the Dust Filter Plasma instrument of the Comet Interceptor mission. He leads an international team of scientists from Italy, France, Sweden, Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany and Great Britain.

– The instrument we manufacture consists of five instruments that diagnose the magnetic and electric field and properties of the dust plasma, as well as the central computer and power system modules, which are located on the mothership and a small satellite. This is really a lot of work, but if we can do it, we’ll make three-dimensional diagnostics and examine the physical processes that take place on the comet’s surface and in its environment. This data will also give us a better understanding of the formation process of the solar system

– says Prof. Hanna Rothkaehl.

Comet Interceptor is part of the group of fast missions, ie fast missions, the construction of which takes only about eight years. Precisely because of the work pace, only scientists with documented and appreciated achievements are invited for such a mission. Professor Rothkaehl was invited for her acclaimed work on the JUICE mission.

The Comet Interceptor is expected to launch with the Ariel 2029 mission. Ariel is an observatory that studies the atmospheres of exoplanets, the so-called hot Jupiters. The Space Research Center of the Polish Academy of Sciences is also involved in this mission. Together, the two missions travel to L2 – a location 1.5 million km ‘behind’ the Earth as seen from the sun. There the Comet Interceptor waits for the right target. Once one of them is spotted and selected, the mission continues its journey.

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