The European Space Agency (ESA) has given the go ahead for the first space mission designed to ambush passing comets: the probe, called Comet Interceptor, will in fact remain parked in space waiting for a target to be studied at short notice, with the hope of being able to intercept a comet coming from the outermost regions of the Solar System or even from another star.
The mission, whose departure is scheduled for 2028, is very risky, considering that there is no certainty of the arrival of this type of comet, but if successful it could open a window on the material formed at the dawn of the system. Solar, 4.5 billion years ago.
The launch of Comet Interceptor will take place together with ESA's new Ariel space telescope, which will study the atmospheres of exoplanets.
Both objects will travel to the Lagrange Point L2 1.5 million kilometers from our planet, a point that is stable from the point of view of gravitational forces, where the James Webb Space Telescope of NASA, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency is also located ( Csa).
Here the spacecraft will wait, while researchers on Earth will try to identify so-called 'long-term comets': comets that take more than 200 years to travel their very long orbits and which could therefore come from the vast region of icy objects called the Cloud of Oort, far beyond Neptune.
No mission has ever visited such an object before.
Comet Interceptor will comprise two smaller probes (one of these will be developed by the Japanese Space Agency, Jaxa) and a main vehicle, for which ESA will now have to select the contractor from two competing projects: Thales Alenia Space in the UK and OHB Italy.
The function of the shuttle will be to provide support, staying at a distance of about 1,000 kilometers from the chosen comet, while the two probes will be able to get close to about 400 kilometers from the target, to carry out all measurements and capture an image.