Estonian-built space telescope to embark on first-of-its-kind mission

The Comet Interceptor mission will travel to an as-yet undiscovered comet or other extra-Solar System space rock, making a flyby of the chosen target when it is on the approach to Earth’s orbit.
The Comet Interceptor mission will travel to an as-yet undiscovered comet or other extra-Solar System space rock, making a flyby of the chosen target when it is on the approach to Earth’s orbit. Source: ESA

A space telescope built by Estonian scientists is about to embark on a deep space mission, with the aim of photographing space rock which may have its origins outside our Solar System and bringing new knowledge of the system's origins.

The telescope/camera, built by scientists at Tõravere, near Tartu, will join the European Space Agency's (ESA) Comet Interceptor mission, BNS reports, quoting daily Postimees, reported.

As reported on ERR News, the telescope is named OPIC (Optical Imager for Comets) and is a reference to Estonian astronomer Ernst Öpik.

Mihkel Pajusalu, manager of the Estonian part of Comet Interceptor, said that this will be the first time equipment built in Estonia is to travel to deep space, and also the first time that Estonia is playing play an equal part in all stages of a major ESA project.

As part of the mission, three spacecraft, a mothership and two smaller probes, will be flown into deep space to a Sun-Earth Lagrangian point (a point near two large bodies in orbit where a smaller object will maintain its position relative to the large orbiting bodies-ed.).

One of the craft will host the Estonian tech and has the capacity to wait in a stable position as a result of the combined effect of Sun and Earth gravitation until a space rock of interest comes into range, it is reported.   

The mother craft is then put on to a collision course with the object, performing a close fly-past at a distance of approximately 1,000 kilometers performed, during which the telescope camera-carrying probe will pass even closer, at a range of around 300 kilometers.

The whole mission is significant in being opportunistic, as Pajusalu describes it, since the choice of the object to be targeted can be made only when the craft are already in space.

In an ideal case, the aim would be to photograph an object from outside the Solar System - only two of which are known to scientists at this point. If successful, the mission would be the first time that scientists have obtained photographs of matter alien to the Solar System, which should heighten knowledge of exoplanets and potential spread of life in space.

As the mission's name indicates, the target could also be a comet, in which case so-called dynamically new comet, which have left the Öpik-Oort Cloud (part-named after the same Astronomer-ed.) on the fringes of the Solar System, entering it for the first time, would be targeted.

"These objects have been effectively in the same state since the birth of the Solar System and should hence be as close as possible to the conditions that prevailed at the system's birth," Pajusalu added.

If no objects from either category are captured on camera over a three-year period, a regular asteroid or comet in the process of breaking apart will be targeted instead, BNS reports.

This would enable scientists to obtain a better picture of the interior of such bodies, something which normally remains concealed.

Whatever target it locks on to, the telescope's camera has just a few hundred seconds at its disposal to take photos of an object which could be moving at speeds of up to 80 kilometers per second, all of which must be done fully autonomously, according to BNS.

Previously, Estonian researchers' have participated in several missions (GAIA, Planck, ARIEL, ATHENA) which have been supported by research funding from the state.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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