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Author Topic:   ESA's Comet Interceptor fast-class mission

Posts: 5084
From: Sierra Vista, Arizona
Registered: Nov 1999

posted 06-19-2019 04:49 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for SpaceAholic   Click Here to Email SpaceAholic     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
European Space Agency (ESA) release
ESA's New Mission to Intercept a Comet

"Comet Interceptor" has been selected as ESA's new fast-class mission in its Cosmic Vision Program. Comprising three spacecraft, it will be the first to visit a truly pristine comet or other interstellar object that is only just starting its journey into the inner Solar System.

The mission will travel to an as-yet undiscovered comet, making a flyby of the chosen target when it is on the approach to Earth's orbit. Its three spacecraft will perform simultaneous observations from multiple points around the comet, creating a 3D profile of a 'dynamically new' object that contains unprocessed material surviving from the dawn of the Solar System.

"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," says Günther Hasinger, ESA's Director of Science.

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

What is a Fast mission?

Comet Interceptor is a "fast," or F-class mission. The "fast" refers to the implementation time, with a total development duration from selection to launch readiness of about eight years. F-class missions, which have a launch mass of less than 1000 kg, will share the ride into space with a medium-class mission, taking advantage of additional space in the launcher and the boost to the Sun-Earth Lagrange point L2, which is 1.5 million kilometers 'behind' Earth as viewed from the Sun.

Comet Interceptor is foreseen for launch as co-passenger with ESA's exoplanet-studying Ariel spacecraft in 2028. Both missions will be delivered to L2 and from there Comet Interceptor will journey onwards to the chosen target using its own propulsion system.

The selection process has also been fast. Following a call for missions in July 2018, 23 pitches were submitted by the space science community, with six teams subsequently invited to provide more detailed proposals. Among them, Comet Interceptor was chosen at today's Science Program Committee to move into a more detailed definition phase.

"We thank the space science community for their excellent proposals, which covered a broad range of novel topics that could be explored within the constraints of the F-class guidelines," says Director Hasinger.

"This type of innovative mission will play an important role in supplementing ESA's Science Program as we plan for the next decades of scientific exploration of our Universe.

"We are also happy to maintain the 'fast' mission philosophy by selecting Comet Interceptor within a year since the original call for proposals was made."

What's new about Comet Interceptor?

Comet Interceptor comprises three spacecraft. The composite spacecraft will wait at L2 for a suitable target, then travel together before the three modules separate a few weeks prior to intercepting the comet. Each module will be equipped with a complementary science payload, providing different perspectives of the comet's nucleus and its gas, dust, and plasma environment. Such 'multi-point' measurements will greatly improve the 3D information needed to understand the dynamic nature of a pristine comet while it is interacting with the constantly changing solar wind environment.

The mission's instrument suite will draw on heritage from other missions, including a camera based on the one currently flying on the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, along with dust, fields and plasma instruments, as well as a mass spectrometer, like those that flew on ESA's Rosetta.

Previous comet missions, including ESA's pioneering spacecraft Giotto and Rosetta, encountered short-period comets. These are comets with orbital periods of less than 200 years that have approached the Sun many times along their orbits in relatively recent times and as a consequence have undergone significant changes: Rosetta's comet, 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko orbits the Sun once every 6.5 years while Comet 1P/Halley, visited by Giotto and other spacecraft in 1986, returns to our skies every 76 years.

Comet Interceptor is different because it will target a comet visiting the inner Solar System for the first time – perhaps from the vast Oort cloud that is thought to surround the outer reaches of the Sun's realm. As such, the comet will contain material that has not undergone much processing since the dawn of the Sun and planets. The mission will therefore offer a new insight into the evolution of comets as they migrate inwards from the periphery of the Solar System.

Although much rarer, another example of a potential target is an interstellar interloper from another star system, like the famed 'Oumuamua that flew past our Sun on a highly inclined orbit in 2017. Studying an interstellar object would offer the chance to explore how comet-like bodies form and evolve in other star systems.

In the past, "new" comets have only been discovered a few months to years before they pass through their closest approach to the Sun, which is too short notice to plan, build and launch a space mission, and for it to travel to the specific object before it moves away from the Sun again.

Recent advances in ground-based surveys mean that the sky can be scanned more deeply and longer notice can be provided. Pan-STARRS is currently the most proliferous comet discovery machine, with more than half of all new comets per year uncovered by the survey. The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, currently under construction in Chile, will also greatly increase the catalogue of new comets.

In any case, the destination for Comet Interceptor does not need to be known while the mission is being prepared; the spacecraft can be ready and waiting in space for a suitable comet encounter, and is expected to complete its mission within five years of launch.

Robert Pearlman

Posts: 48494
From: Houston, TX
Registered: Nov 1999

posted 06-08-2022 11:44 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
European Space Agency (ESA) release
Comet Interceptor approved for construction

ESA's Comet Interceptor mission to visit a pristine comet or other interstellar object just starting its journey into the inner Solar System has been 'adopted' this week; the study phase is complete and, following selection of the spacecraft prime contractor, work will soon begin to build the mission.

Comet Interceptor will share a ride into space with ESA's Ariel exoplanet mission in 2029. The mission will build upon the successes of Rosetta and Giotto, ESA missions that both visited 'short-period' comets. Though these missions completely transformed our understanding of comets, their targets had already swung round the Sun many times and had therefore changed significantly since their creation.

Comet Interceptor aims to scrutinise a comet that has spent little time in the inner Solar System, or is possibly visiting it for the first time. Whilst Rosetta's target hailed from the rocky Kuiper Belt just beyond Neptune, Comet Interceptor's could originate from the vast Oort Cloud, over a thousand times further from the Sun.

Although they're much rarer, a different potential target could be an 'interstellar interloper' from outside the Solar System – something similar to 'Oumuamua that unexpectedly flew past the Sun in 2017. Studying such an object could offer the chance to explore how comet-like bodies form and evolve in other star systems.

Comet Interceptor was adopted by ESA during the Agency's Science Programme Committee meeting on 8 June. The mission is led by ESA with support from the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA).

"The adoption of Comet Interceptor builds upon the breakthroughs of our visionary Giotto and Rosetta missions, accelerating us towards next-level comet science," says Günther Hasinger ESA's Director of Science. "It will keep European scientists at the forefront of cometary research and position ESA as a leader in this exciting field."

Comet Interceptor will be made up of a main spacecraft and two probes, which will surround the comet to observe it from multiple angles. In this way, the innovative mission will build up a 3D profile of its as-yet-undiscovered target. ESA is responsible for the main spacecraft and one of the probes, while JAXA is responsible for the second probe.

"A comet on its first orbit around the Sun would contain unprocessed material from the dawn of the Solar System," explains ESA's Comet Interceptor study scientist Michael Küppers. "Studying such an object and sampling this material will help us understand not only more about comets, but also how the Solar System formed and evolved over time."

Journey to a comet

The mission is expected to launch together with ESA's exoplanet-studying Ariel mission in 2029. The two missions will travel together to L2 – a location 1.5 million km 'behind' Earth as viewed from the Sun. There, Comet Interceptor will wait for a suitable target. Once one is spotted and selected, the mission will continue its journey.

With recent advancements in ground-based telescopes, 'new' comets are now typically detected more than a year before their closest approach to the Sun. This is still too short notice to plan, build and launch a dedicated space mission. But it is enough time for the ready-and-waiting Comet Interceptor to travel from L2 to the comet's location.

Operating spacecraft across millions of kilometres of space is always a challenge, but Comet Interceptor has a truly unique flight profile. Navigating the spacecraft towards the target comet, releasing the probes at the right time and performing a flyby will require steady hands and calm heads from ESA's mission operations team.

A visionary mission – with benefits in space and on Earth

The three flight elements – the main spacecraft and two smaller probes – that make up Comet Interceptor will each be equipped with different high-tech instruments that will help us discover more about the dynamic nature of a pristine comet. ESA will lead the development of the main spacecraft and one of the probes, both carrying unique instruments built mainly by European industry. The other probe will be developed by JAXA.

Comet Interceptor has ground-breaking aims to characterise the surface composition, shape and structure of a pristine comet for the first time ever, and investigate the composition of its gas and dust coma. In some cases, this will require existing technologies to be refined, boosting the space and engineering industries in many ESA Member States.

"As with most ESA missions, Comet Interceptor will motivate collaboration between different companies, institutes, and countries, and will accelerate the development of innovative technologies that may have completely different applications in the future," says ESA's Comet Interceptor project manager Nicola Rando.

Comet Interceptor is also contributing to ESA's planetary defence efforts. We know of almost 120 comets and more than 29 000 asteroids that come close to Earth in their orbit around the Sun. By studying these objects, we not only uncover secrets of the Solar System but also become better equipped to protect our planet if and when one is discovered on a collision course with Earth. Comet Interceptor joins a fleet of worldwide missions related to planetary defence, including ESA's Hera mission, which is involved in the world's first asteroid deflection test.

Nicola concludes: "Having spent the last few years devising and developing the Comet Interceptor concept, we are now ready to take the mission to the next stage, selecting the prime contractor and then starting the implementation phase."

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