The LABOR Gazette Briefs

2022-06-20
Adoption of the Comet Interceptor space exploration mission: participation of Lyon.

The Comet Interceptor space mission has just been accepted by the European Space Agency (ESA) as the next mission to explore the solar system. Developed in collaboration with the Japan 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 borders 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 crashing on this comet. Such a comet could only be discovered in a few years and possibly after Comet Interceptor leaves Earth. In Lyon, the Lyon Geology Laboratory (LGL-TPE, CNRS / Claude Bernard Lyon 1 University / ENS de Lyon) plays an important 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 accepted on June 8, 2022. It will be launched in 2029.

Comet Interceptor can be considered the descendant of ESA’s groundbreaking comet missions Giotto and Rosetta. However, it differs on the one hand because it will allow the first simultaneous observations – at three different points – of an object outside the terrestrial environment, and on the other hand because it will target a comet visiting the inner Sun system for the first time – probably starting from the giant Oort Cloud that surrounds 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 although it has already started its journey to us, its destination has not yet been discovered.

Comet Interceptor will consist of three spacecraft. The compound vehicle will wait patiently at a point in the Solar System (the L2 Lagrange point) for a suitable target comet and then travel together before the three spacecraft that make it up separate a few weeks before intercepting the comet. Its three spacecraft will then make simultaneous observations around the comet. Each spacecraft will be equipped with specific scientific instruments that will provide complementary information about the comet’s nucleus and its gas, dust and plasma environment in order to understand the nature of a primitive comet interacting with the wind environment. They will use it to create the first 3D profile of a comet from the Oort Cloud, containing material that has survived since the formation of the sun and planets.

The CNRS and the CNES participate fully in the Comet Interceptor mission through contributions to 4 onboard instruments, two of which are directly under French responsibility. The CNRS is also responsible for coordinating the scientific modeling that is critical to 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 legacy acquired by the French scientific community with the previous successful Rosetta Comet space mission.

In Lyon, the Lyon Geology Laboratory (LGL-TPE, CNRS / Claude Bernard Lyon 1 University / ENS de Lyon) is responsible for the coordination and development of comet models required for the entire mission: from the engineering phases to the Design of various instruments while the goal is not yet known (development of cell nucleus, hair models, etc.), in operational phases. The LGL-TPE is also involved in the selection of the future target by modeling the evolution of cometary activity based on the first observations made on the ground.

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