The European Space Agency has approved the deployment of the Comet Interceptor, a mission to detect the so-called virgin comet or other interstellar object that begins its journey into the inner solar system. The space research center of the Polish Academy of Sciences is involved in the mission.
The decision was made at the meeting of the national representatives of the Scientific Program Committee (SPC) – three years after the selection of the mission. The research phase has come to an end and construction work will begin shortly after the selection of the main contractor for the spacecraft, the CBK PAN said in the release.
“Together with a team of scientists and engineers from CBK PAN, I have the great pleasure of leading a multinational team of researchers who created the DFP device (Dust, Field, Plasma, i.e. Dust, Pola and Plasma), consisting instruments from nine separate components placed on two satellites. For the first time in the history of Poland’s participation in ESA programs, such a responsible task of leadership at the scientific, technical and management level was entrusted to a team from Poland “- says prof . Hanna Rothkaehl of the Space Research Center of the Polish Academy of Sciences, principal investigator of the DFP device, is quoted in the release.
The researcher points out that it is a groundbreaking mission, both in terms of the cognitive history of the solar system and the technological and operational assumptions of satellite construction and navigation. He also emphasizes that this is a unique mission for Poland, because for the first time in the history of our participation in the works of ESA, a scientist from our country occupies such a high position in the space mission.
The purpose of the Comet Interceptor, as explained in the release, is to study a comet that has spent little time in the inner solar system or is even 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 unexpectedly flew past the sun 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. In this way – described in the release – the mission will build a 3D profile of its as yet undiscovered target.
ESA is responsible for the main spacecraft and one of the probes, and the Japan Space Exploration Agency (JAXA) is responsible for the second probe.
“A comet in its first orbit around the sun would contain raw materials from the beginning of the solar system,” explains Michael Küppers, an ESA comet interceptor scientist, about how the solar system has formed and evolved over time”.
The DFP instrument will consist of five sensor arrays and central electronics placed on both the main and minor satellites, enabling in-situ measurements at multiple points of dust, electromagnetic fields and charged particles in a comet environment.
Prof. Rothkaehl leads a team of scientists from Italy, France, Sweden, Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany and the UK. “The instrument we’re making consists of instruments that diagnose the magnetic field, electric field and properties of dust plasma, as well as central computer and power system modules, which are on the mothership and a small satellite. It’s really a lot of work, but if we succeed, we will conduct three-dimensional diagnostics and study 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 process of the formation of the solar system”- describes the researcher.
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 highly regarded work on the JUICE mission – we read in the CBK PAN release.
The Comet Interceptor is expected to launch in 2029 with the Ariel mission. Ariel is an observatory to study 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 will travel to L2, a location 1.5 million km outside Earth as seen from the sun. There the Comet Interceptor waits for the right target. Once one of them is spotted and chosen, the mission will continue its journey.
CBK PAN will also be scientifically involved in data analysis and interpretation of recorded measurements, as well as preparing details related to the mission’s scientific program.