European agency approves probe to intercept early comets

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.

On the Comet Interceptor mission, originally planned for launch in 2028, Portuguese astrobiologist Zita Martins is part of an international team that will analyze 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. .

This ‘Comet Interceptor’ will place its main probe 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, far 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 end of the solar system, and eventually interstellar objects entering the solar system. The solar system is approaching the sun for the first time and is on its way.

Positioned in this way, the main probe will become a “holding point” for one of the comets, Zita Martins, a professor at the Institute of Advanced Technology in 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 Zita Martins, Intercepting a primordial comet is like entering a ‘time machine’ as it can discover which ‘organic molecules’ were available in the early days of the solar system Thus providing more specific clues to the origin of life on Earth.

“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 the solar system and passed near the sun, which have changed their surfaces to hide their original appearance.

Another man, Ariel, also from ESA, will launch the Comet Interceptor mission, which will study the chemical composition of the atmospheres of exoplanets (planets outside the solar system) that have been discovered, and will also involve Portuguese scientists.

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