The European Space Agency is embarking on a new mission to a faraway comet floating on the outer edges of the Solar System that is yet to be discovered.
The mission dubbed "Comet Interceptor" was chosen as part of ESA's Cosmic Vision programme, a series of long term projects launching between 2015 and 2025. Three spacecraft will be built to observe and track the comet in multiple angles as it floats towards Earth.
"It will be the first to visit a truly pristine comet or other interstellar object that is only just starting its journey into the inner Solar System," ESA said on Wednesday.
Distant comets from the Oort Cloud and beyond are ancient relics that have been left untouched since the Solar System began forming some 4.57 billion years ago. Scientists hope that by studying the comet's contents, it'll give them a better picture of the Solar System's history.
Initially, the three probes will travel together as one larger composite spacecraft before they split into separate modules. Each one will be equipped with instruments including cameras and mass spectrometers to study the comet's nucleus, dust, and plasma.
The Euro space bods hope to pick a suitable candidate from those discovered in the near future by telescopes like Pan-STARRS in Hawaii and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, which is currently under construction in Chile.
"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," said Günther Hasinger, ESA's director of science.
Comet Interceptor is classified as an F-class type mission. The F stands for fast, meaning that the ESA has about eight years to get ready starting from the selection of the mission to the launch date. The spacecraft are expected to hitch a ride with ESA's Ariel spacecraft set to blast off to space in 2028, with its launch mass limit set to be less than 1,000kg.
It's not the first time ESA has visited a space rock. Back in 2004, it launched its Rosetta probe to comet 67P. The 10-year journey reached an end when Rosetta released its lander module, Philae, onto the surface of the rubber ducky shaped comet. Unfortunately, the landing didn't go too swimmingly as Philae ended up in an awkward shady spot and received little sunshine to recharge its batteries.
After 57 hours it ran out of juice and entered hibernation mode, making it difficult to contact. Rosetta continued to study comet 67P for about two years before the mission ended. Now, the spacecraft is nothing but a pile of debris after it was ordered to crash headfirst into the comet in September 2016. ®