‘Comet interceptor’ craft built in Europe to unlock space secrets billions of years old

New ESA mission will involve three separate spacecraft that travel to as-yet-undiscovered comets

Anthony Cuthbertson
Thursday 20 June 2019 15:32 BST
Astronomers have detected at least 4,096 confirmed planets outside our solar system
Astronomers have detected at least 4,096 confirmed planets outside our solar system (ESA)

The European Space Agency has fast-tracked the development of a ‘Comet Interceptor’, following the success of its Rosetta probe.

Led from the UK’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory, the new mission will see three separate spacecraft fly out to meet any comet approaching Earth’s orbit.

They would then perform separate but complementary studies, allowing scientists to create a 3D model of it.

“Pristine or dynamically new comets are entirely uncharted and make compelling targets for close-range spacecraft exploration to better understand the diversity and evolution of comets,” said Gunther Hasinger, ESA’s director of science.

“The huge scientific achievements of Giotto and Rosetta – our legacy missions to comets – are unrivalled, but now it is time to build upon their success and visit a pristine comet, or be ready for the next ‘Oumuamua-like interstellar object.”

Any comet will probably come from the Oort cloud, which is thought to surround the outer reaches of the solar system.

Comets from this region have been relatively undisturbed since the system's formation, and could therefore offer insights into celestial occurrences billions of years ago.

Other targets for the mission would be what the space agency described as an “interstellar interloper” from another star system, though such occurrences are much rarer than comets breaking free of the Oort cloud.

It is likely the Comet Interceptor will be launched and waiting in space for a suitable comet encounter before it finds a target.

“This type of innovative mission will play an important role in supplementing ESA’s Science Programme as we plan for the next decades of scientific exploration of our universe,” said Mr Hasinger.

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