Comet Interceptor would be the first mission to travel to a comet that has never previously encountered the inner Solar System.
To do this, it will need to launch and reach a holding position around 1.5 million miles away from Earth. There it will lie in wait until astronomers on the ground spot a suitable comet for it to intercept.
Scientists will then choose to target either 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 – both untouched by the effects of the Sun.
This makes them scientifically important as ‘time capsules’ which offer an opportunity to study the conditions of the early Solar System and understand its formation.
The Comet Interceptor mission will involve a main spacecraft – a ‘mothership’ – that will make observations of the comet from a distance. It will deploy two smaller ‘daughter’ spacecraft which then move in closer to measure features such as the comet’s structure and surface material, as well as the cocktail of gases it is releasing.
The European Space Agency Science Programme Committee has selected the project as the first in a new class of ‘Fast’ missions, which use existing, flight-proven technology to speed up the journey from mission concept to implementation.
Professor Lowry said: ‘The Kent team is delighted to be part of the UK’s contribution to the project. This new mission will build on Europe’s previous, and very successful comet-explorer and lander mission Rosetta, which the University of Kent was also involved in. I look forward to working with the science team of the Comet Interceptor mission to 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.’
Professor Mason said: ‘The UK is now coordinating two of the major planetary missions in Comet Inceptor and the Ariel mission to explore exoplanets with opportunity to understand the chemical origins of life. SPS has a strong legacy in planetary science which we are pleased will continue in this exciting programme.’