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A mission to a pristine comet

Comet 67P in deep space. Photo: ESA/Rosetta/NavCam
Comet 67P in deep space. Photo: ESA/Rosetta/NavCam

A newly selected European Space Agency mission expected to launch in 2028 is designed to get up close and personal with a comet.

Why it matters: If all goes according to plan, the new mission — named the Comet Interceptor — will give us an unprecedented look at a pristine comet that has never visited the inner solar system before and hasn’t been altered by the heat of the Sun.

  • “Pristine or dynamically new comets are entirely uncharted and make compelling targets for close-range spacecraft exploration to better understand the diversity and evolution of comets,” Günther Hasinger, ESA’s director of science, said in a statement.

The big picture: Comets like these are thought to be preserved leftovers from the dawn of the solar system and could help unlock how Earth got its water.

Details: Comet Interceptor is designed to lie in wait in space until a pristine comet is spotted as it moves into the heart of the solar system.

  • Once the target is set, the spacecraft — which is comprised of three modules that can separate from one another — will then move to map and study it.

One fun thing: Because of the mission design, it’s also possible that the spacecraft could intercept a visitor from outside the solar system.

  • If scientists spot another interstellar asteroid or comet like Oumuamua — the asteroid from another solar system that shot through ours in 2017 — the spacecraft could target that object instead.

The backdrop: This won’t be ESA’s first mission to a comet. The space agency also studied Comet 67P from close range with its Rosetta spacecraft and Philae lander. That comet, however, is far from pristine, having flown toward the Sun many times.