UK scientists lead comet mission for answers to our solar system

By Jamie Harris, Press Association Science Technology Reporter
The Comet Interceptor mission is due to launch in 2028.

A mission to chase down a comet is being led by UK scientists in a bid to discover fresh details about the dawn of our solar system.

The European Space Agency (ESA) will send spacecraft around 1.5 million miles away from Earth in 2028, where it will wait until astronomers back home spot an ideal comet to target.

Scientists are looking for a comet preserved from the effects of the sun, which may hold secrets as to how the early solar system was formed.

This means choosing between a pristine comet travelling inward from the far reaches of our solar system for the first time, or an interstellar object similar to Oumuamua, the cigar-shaped asteroid which passed through the solar system last year.

Three spacecraft will be tasked with carrying out observations simultaneously as part of the Comet Interceptor mission, each analysing different perspectives of the comet’s nucleus and its gas, dust, and plasma environment.

The “mothership” will observe from a distance, while two smaller spacecraft will be released to move in closer when the right time comes.

“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,” said Science Minister Chris Skidmore.

“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.”

Comet Interceptor is a UK-led effort with experts from University College London and Edinburgh University working alongside Japan and America’s space agencies, as part of a wider programme expected to cost ESA 150 million euro (£133.5 million).

“I’m delighted that our academic community impressed ESA with a vision of what a small, fast science mission can offer,” said Chris Lee, head of science programmes at UK Space Agency.

“In 1986 the UK-led mission to Halley’s Comet became the first to observe a cometary nucleus and, more recently, UK scientists took part in another iconic European comet mission, Rosetta.

“Now our scientists will build on that impressive legacy by attempting to visit a pristine comet for the very first time and learn more about the origins of our Solar System.”