The European Space Agency (ESA) has given approval to build the mission’s main probe, with launch delayed until 2029, as it seeks to intercept a primordial comet unaffected by solar radiation for the first time.
performing tasks Comet Interceptor (Comet Interceptor, paraphrase) The launch was originally planned for 2028, with the participation of Portuguese astrobiologist Zita Martins, who is part of an international team that will analyze the data collected later.
Through this mission, driven by ESA in collaboration with Japanese counterpart JAXA, scientists aim to obtain answers about the origin of life on Earth from a comet that never approached the sun, and thus remains unchanged since its formation.
ESA said in a statement that the “research phase” of the mission “has been completed” and that construction of the main probe “will begin shortly” after the contracting consortium has been selected. The mission includes a main probe and two smaller probes that will observe the comet from all angles. One of the smaller probes is responsible for the JAXA mechanism.
waiting for a comet
This Comet Interceptor The main probe will be placed 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, away from the sun. Combined with a ground-based telescope to be built in Chile, the device will be able to detect comets from the Oort Cloud, the region at the far end of our solar system, and eventually detect incoming interstellar objects entering the solar system for the first time, and in close proximity to the sun. in the path.
Positioned in this way, the main probe will become the “holding point” for one of the comets, Zita Martins, a professor at the Institute of Advanced Technology (Lisbon) and an expert on the origin of life on Earth, previously told Lusa.
After identifying the hitherto unknown comet, the probe will travel through space for months or years to intercept the comet at the right place and time as it crosses the ecliptic plane (the plane of Earth’s orbit relative to the sun). comet.
Before approaching the comet, two smaller detectors will be released from the main detector. It is these two devices that will orbit the comet and collect as much information as possible, including the composition, shape and structure of its surface. All data obtained will be transmitted to ground-based telescopes via the main detector with which it communicates.
For Zeta Martins, intercepting a primordial comet is like entering a “time machine,” as it can uncover which “organic molecules” were present at the beginning of the solar system’s formation, providing more specific clues about the origins of life. on this land.
“Capturing” such comets has been difficult because they are only discovered when they first approach the sun, leaving little time to plan and send space missions to them.
Comets, often described as “dirty ice balls”, except for ice, dust, rock fragments, gases and organic compounds (the latter of which will reach Earth as a result of the comet’s impact on the Earth’s surface).
Previous space missions have studied comets that have repeatedly entered our solar system and passed near the sun, changing their surface to hide their true colors.European survey rosette Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko orbited between Earth and Jupiter for two years between 2014 and 2016. This is the first time the probe has orbited a comet and has a robotic module installed on its surface.
mission Comet Interceptor It will be launched by another Ariel, also from ESA, which will study the chemical composition of the atmospheres of exoplanets (planets outside our solar system) that have already been discovered, with Portuguese scientists also involved.