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The European space mission that plans to ambush a comet

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2022-06-21 16:00:18

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An artist’s impression of Comet Interceptor, which is due to launch in 2028 and will wait for its target for up to six years. Credit: Geraint Jones, UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory

The European Space Agency (ESA) has approved a new mission, called Comet Interceptor, which will launch without any specific target in mind — instead lying in wait for a visitor from the outer Solar System, or even from another star. Comet Interceptor could give researchers a first glimpse of pristine material from far beyond the Sun’s reaches, or even unveil the chemical make-up of alien worlds.

It will be the first probe to be parked in space, ready to fly to a target at short notice. “We are taking a significant risk,” says Günther Hasinger, ESA’s director of science. “But it’s a high reward.”

The mission, first put forward in 2019, will launch in 2028 along with a new telescope, Ariel, designed to study the atmospheres of exoplanets. Both will travel to the second Lagrange point (L2), a point of gravitational stability 1.5 million kilometres from Earth — beyond the orbit of the Moon — where the James Webb Space Telescope, launched late last year, also resides.

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