Comet Interceptor is to explore a comet that has remained virtually unchanged since the formation of the solar system. © ESA

Comet Interceptor: How to explore an undiscovered comet

Visiting an unknown comet that has not even entered our solar system yet? Challenging, but not impossible. With Comet Interceptor, the European Space Agency is planning to map a truly pristine object from the beginnings of our solar system.

Interview with Timo Rühl, Systems Engineer at OHB.

What is Comet Interceptor?

Timo Rühl: Comet Interceptor is – as the name suggests – an ESA mission to visit a comet. Which comet that is going to be has not been determined yet and will most likely still remain unknown even when the mission is ready to launch.

Why is Comet Interceptor to visit an unknown comet?

All missions that have gone to comets so far, have visited comets that originate from the Kuiper Belt. These comets enter the inner solar system relatively frequently, which changes their composition. Truly pristine objects originate from the Oort cloud or even from outside our solar system. The problem is that the appearance of these objects cannot be predicted with sufficient lead time to then build and launch a spacecraft.

How will Comet Interceptor intercept such an object?

We first build the spacecraft and then bring it into a parking position in space, where it can spend a long time waiting until a suitable target is detected.

Why is it interesting for science to study comets?

Small body research creates a lot of valuable data. The objects in the Oort cloud are so far out that they are halfway between our Sun and the next star. They are remnants from the early days of our solar system and can therefore tell us what the objects in the early solar system were made of. This can help us understand how the solar system formed and how planets like our Earth came to be.