• ESA will launch a new mission to intercept comets
  • The Comet Interceptor aims to analyze the nature of comets
  • Comet NEOWISE reached its closest distance to Earth on Thursday

After observing comet NEOWISE’s near-Earth approach, the European Space Agency (ESA) is planning to launch a new mission that aims to intersect the trajectory of a passing comet. According to the ESA, the goal of the mission is to study the nature of comets.

On Thursday, comet C/2020 F3, also known as NEOWISE, reached its closest distance to Earth. During its approach, it flew past the planet from a distance of 0.69 astronomical units or roughly 64 million miles away.

Comet NEOWISE is expected to travel out of the Solar System and into interstellar space. It will return to Earth’s neighborhood after about 6,800 years.

In the future, the ESA is hoping to take advantage of a comet’s visit through a new mission dubbed as the Comet Interceptor. As its name suggests, the mission aims to intersect a comet’s trajectory as it flies near Earth.

Comet Interceptor was selected last year as a new fast-class mission under the ESA’s Cosmic Vision Program. As a fast-class mission, the ESA has about eight years to plan, develop and execute the Comet Interceptor project.

For the mission, the ESA will launch Comet Interceptor, which will be comprised of three spacecraft. These vessels will travel to a region designated as the Lagrange point L2, which is about 1.5 million kilometers from Earth.

The Comet Interceptor spacecraft will stay in this region and wait for the arrival of a comet, which is yet to be identified. Once a comet has been detected, the vessels will move toward the object to intersect it.

Through onboard systems, the Comet Interceptor trio will collect data regarding the comet’s various aspects such as its dust, gases, nucleus and plasma environment. According to the ESA, using three vessels will enable the mission to collect multiple sets of data from the comet.

“Each module will be equipped with a complementary science payload, providing different perspectives of the comet’s nucleus and its gas, dust, and plasma environment,” the ESA explained in a statement. “Such ‘multi-point’ measurements will greatly improve the 3D information needed to understand the dynamic nature of a pristine comet while it is interacting with the constantly changing solar wind environment.”

An unprocessed image from the WISPR instrument on board NASA’s Parker Solar Probe shows comet NEOWISE on July 5, 2020, shortly after its closest approach to the Sun. The Sun is out of frame to the left. The faint grid pattern near the center of the image is an artifact of the way the image is created. The small black structure near the lower left of the image is caused by a grain of dust resting on the imager’s lens. NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Naval Research Lab/Parker Solar Probe/Brendan Gallagher