UK-proposed Comet Interceptor mission to be launched by ESA in 2028

Image: Comet Interceptor will be the first mission to travel to a comet that is yet to encounter the inner Solar System. Photo: courtesy of ESA/Crown copyright.

Comet Interceptor, a new space mission proposed by the UK, is targeted to be launched by the European Space Agency (ESA) in 2028.

According to the UK Space Agency, the Comet Interceptor will become the first mission to travel to a comet that is yet to encounter the inner Solar System.

For this, the spaceship, made up of three spacecraft, will have to launch and reach a holding position nearly a million miles away from Earth at the Sun-Earth Lagrange Point L2. At this point, the Comet Interceptor will lie in wait until astronomers on the ground identify a suitable comet for it to intercept.

Astronomers will select to target a pristine comet flying inward from the far reaches of the Solar System for the first time, or an interstellar object identical to Oumuamua, the cigar-shaped asteroid which passed through the Solar System in 2018, untouched by the effects of the Sun.

The UK Space Agency said that such comets are scientifically significant as ‘time capsules’ which give scope to study the conditions of the early Solar System and get an understanding of its formation.

The interceptor mission will feature a ‘mothership’ which will be the main spacecraft. The mothership’s role will be to record observations of the comet from a distance. It will use two smaller ‘daughter’ spacecraft which will head towards the comet to measure its features like structure and surface material and also the mixture of gases released by it.

The Comet Interceptor has been selected by the ESA Science Programme Committee as the first in a new class of ‘Fast’ missions, developed based on existing, flight-proven technology to fast track the journey from mission concept to implementation.

UCL and Edinburgh University are leading the international payload consortium for the Comet Interceptor mission which also includes other UK institutions to go along with JAXA and NASA, the respective space agencies of Japan and the US.

UK Science Minister Chris Skidmore said: “Comet Interceptor sounds like something from a science fiction film but UK scientists are working to make it a reality in collaboration our partners in the European Space Agency.

“This new type of fast mission is a great example of how advances in space technology can bring benefits back to the science community. Our modern Industrial Strategy is ensuring that the UK takes these opportunities to lead the new space age.”