A European space mission, with the participation of Portuguese astrobiologist Zita Martins, will seek to intercept for the first time a primitive comet, unchanged by the sun’s radiation, for answers on the origin of life on Earth.
The mission of the European Space Agency (ESA) “Comet Interceptor” is scheduled for release in 2028 and will be the first to gather information about a comet that has never approached the Sun and therefore has remained unchanged since its formation.
“Catching” such comets has been difficult as they can only be detected when approaching the sun for the first time, leaving little time to plan and send a space mission towards you.
The mission “Comet Interceptor”, with the collaboration of the Japanese space agency (JAXA), will place a spacecraft 1.5 million kilometers from Earth in the opposite direction of the Sun.
Together with terrestrial telescopes, one of them being built in Chile, the device will detect a comet from the Oort Cloud, a region in the far reaches of the Solar System, and eventually interstellar bodies that entered the Solar System for the first time and are on the path. of approach to the sun.
After identifying the hitherto unknown comet, the spacecraft will travel for months or years through space to be in place and at the right time to intercept the comet when it crosses the plane of the elliptical, the plane of Earth’s orbit with respect to the Sun.
Two smaller probes will be released from the main probe before approaching the comet. It is these two devices that will surround the comet and gather as much information as possible, including about its surface composition, shape and structure.
All data obtained will be transmitted to terrestrial telescopes through the main probe with which they communicate.
For Zita Martins, professor at the Instituto Superior Técnico in Lisbon, intercepting a primitive comet is like entering the “time machine”, since it will allow us to unveil which “organic molecules” are available at the beginning of the formation of the Solar System and thus give more concrete clues about the origin of life on earth.
Comets, commonly referred to as “dirty ice balls”, have in their composition, as well as ice, dust, rock fragments, gas and organic compounds (the latter having reached Earth as a result of the impact of comets on the earth’s surface).
Earlier space missions studied comets that entered the Solar System several times and passed near the Sun, which produced changes in their surface, hiding their original appearance.
The European spacecraft Rosetta orbited for two years between 2014 and 2016, comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which travels between Earth and Jupiter’s orbits. It was the first time a probe had orbited a comet and had a robotic module on its surface.
The mission “Comet Interceptor” will be launched in the wake of another, Ariel, also from ESA, which will study the chemical composition of the atmosphere of already discovered exoplanets (planets outside the Solar System) and also with the participation of Portuguese scientists. .