The LABORATORY Gazette Briefs – OI Canadian

2022-06-20
Adoption of the Comet Interceptor space exploration mission: Lyon’s involvement.

The Comet Interceptor space mission has just been adopted by the European Space Agency (ESA) as the next solar system exploration mission. Developed in collaboration with the Japanese space agency (JAXA), several national space agencies and research centers in Europe, including CNES and CNRS, Comet Interceptor will be the first space mission to visit a comet from the confines of the solar system, or even outside the solar system. A unique feature of this space mission will be to wait in the solar system before swooping down on this comet. Such a comet can only be discovered in a few years and potentially after Comet Interceptor leaves Earth. In Lyon, the Lyon Geology Laboratory (LGL-TPE, CNRS / Claude Bernard Lyon 1 University / ENS de Lyon) plays a major role in this mission.

The Comet Interceptor space exploration mission, proposed by the European scientific community and whose feasibility has been studied with ESA since 2019, has just been adopted on June 8, 2022. It will be launched in 2029.

Comet Interceptor can be considered a descendant of ESA’s pioneering cometary missions Giotto and Rosetta. It is however different, on the one hand, because it will provide the first simultaneous observations – in three different points – of an object located outside the terrestrial environment, and, on the other hand, because it will target a comet visiting the inner solar system for the first time – likely originating from the vast Oort cloud surrounding the outer edges of the solar system. This type of comet can only be observed a few years before entering the inner solar system, so one of the peculiarities of the Comet Interceptor mission is that its target has not yet been discovered, even if it has already started its journey towards us.

Comet Interceptor will consist of three space probes. The composite craft will wait patiently at a point in the solar system (the Lagrange point L2) for a suitable target comet, then travel together before the three space probes that compose it separate a few weeks before intercepting the comet. Its three spacecraft will then make simultaneous observations around the comet. Each space probe will be equipped with specific scientific instruments that will provide complementary information about the comet’s nucleus and its gas, dust and plasma environment, to understand the nature of a primitive comet interacting with the wind environment. ever-changing sun. They will thus create the first 3D profile of a comet coming from the Oort cloud, containing material that has survived since the formation of the Sun and the planets.

The CNRS and the CNES fully participate in the Comet Interceptor mission through contributions to 4 on-board instruments, two of which are directly under French responsibility. The CNRS is also responsible for coordinating scientific modeling, which is crucial for the selection of the target comet. Astrophysicists from 10 French laboratories (LPC2E in Orléans; IRAP and LAPLACE in Toulouse; LAM in Marseille; LAB in Bordeaux; LGLTPE in Lyon; Lagrange in Nice; IMCCE, LESIA, LATMOS in Paris) are currently involved in the mission. The French contributions to Comet Interceptor illustrate the strong scientific and technical inheritance acquired by the French scientific community with the previous successful Rosetta cometary space mission.

In Lyon, the Lyon Geology Laboratory (LGL-TPE, CNRS / Claude Bernard Lyon 1 University / ENS de Lyon) is responsible for developing for coordinating and cometary models as needed for the entire mission: from the phases engineering, allowing the design of various instruments While the target is not yet known (development of models of nucleus, hair, etc.), in the operational phases. The LGL-TPE is also involved in the selection of the future target, by modeling the development of cometary activity on the basis of the first observations which will be made on the ground.

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