stars space

‘Comet chaser’ to boldly go where no probe has gone before

Image credit: dreamstime

The UK government has confirmed that work will soon begin on a state-of-the-art spacecraft that, for the first time, will track down and map comets in 3D.

Thales Alenia Space, the French-Italian aerospace manufacturer with three sites in the UK, has won a contract to design the mothership for the 'Comet Interceptor' mission, which will see one main spacecraft and two smaller robotic probes – to be built by the Japanese Space Agency – travel to an as-yet unidentified comet, then map it in 3D.

Comets are what is left over when a planetary system forms and each ancient object has preserved information about the formation of our solar system approximately 4.6 billion years ago.

Once successfully launched into space, the Comet Interceptor will wait in a parking orbit – possibly for years – until a suitable target has been spotted by astronomers. It will then be despatched on an intercept course, deploying the two smaller probes, which will make extremely close passes of the comet’s nucleus and beam their data back to the main craft.

This new ambush tactic is the first of its kind. The fly-by of the two probes, roughly 30cm in length, is likely to take just a few hours, but could illuminate conditions that prevailed more than four billion years ago.

Amanda Solloway, science minister said, "The UK’s space industry is thriving and this out-of-this-world mission is testament to our world-leading expertise. I am very proud that scientists and engineers in Bristol and Harwell will be designing the Comet Interceptor spacecraft. Their incredible work will not only further our understanding of the evolution of comets but help unlock the mysteries of the universe".

The scientific mission was originally proposed by an international team led by UK academics from University College London and the University of Edinburgh, among others.

Previous missions have studied comets trapped in short-period orbits around the Sun, meaning they have been significantly altered by the star’s light and heat. Breaking from that mould, Comet Interceptor will target a pristine comet on its first approach to the Sun.

The scientists are likely to target a comet travelling from the Oort Cloud: a band of icy debris that lies about halfway between the Sun and the next nearest star.

This debris was formed during the conception of the solar system, but was rapidly ejected to its outermost edge. Unlike more familiar comets, their surface will not have been vaporised by the Sun’s energy — a process that leads to dust building up on a comet, obscuring its original state.

Once the probes reach a pristine comet, they will study and scrutinise the chemical composition of it, with one aim being to evaluate whether similar objects may have brought water to Earth in the past.

Andrew Stanniland, CEO of Thales Alenia Space in the UK, commented: "I am delighted ESA [the European Space Agency] has once again placed its trust in our scientists and engineers at Thales Alenia Space in the UK, who have excellent heritage from previous scientific missions such as Giotto and Rosetta."

"We all look forward to supporting this exciting and unprecedented scientific mission to uncover more information about the origins of our Universe."

The comet interceptor is the first of ESA’s new class of what it calls “fast” missions. Each mission must weigh less than 1,000kg and launch within eight years of selection, so they can hitchhike into space on an already scheduled launch.

Comet Interceptor will launch in 2028 alongside the Ariel space telescope: the UK-backed ESA mission to study the atmospheres of exoplanets orbiting other distant stars.

The Comet Interceptor mission has echoes of the 1986 mission to Halley’s Comet, in which the UK played a leading role, which became the first observation of a cometary nucleus.

Space research is increasingly on the agenda for the UK government, as it seeks to establish the UK as a leader in the technology, post-Brexit. Last week, the government awarded over £7m in funding to 21 organisations hoping to innovate in the space sector, from projects to help monitor climate change to ones providing greater connectivity to remote areas. The funding will go towards “high-risk, high-reward” projects across the UK which aim to tackle major problems using space technology.

In November, the UK Space Agency and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy revealed funding for research into space-based solar power (SBSP) systems that could beam ‘emission-free electricity’ down to Earth.

Meanwhile, in October, it was confirmed that Lockheed Martin will transfer its satellite launch operations to Shetland Space Centre, in Scotland, potentially creating hundreds of jobs and bolstering the UK’s ambition to become a key player in small satellite launches. The Shetland spaceport site is expected to support a total of 605 jobs by 2024.

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles