Estonia to take part in European Space Agency mission for first time

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

Researchers from the University of Tartu are for the first time participating in an international space mission with the European Space Agency to intercept a comet.

Estonian researchers will develop a new optical telescope for photographing comets, alongside partners from Aalto University in Finland and the Finnish VTT Technical Research Center. The telescope will be named OPIC (OPtical Imager for Comets) and is a reference to estonian astronomer Ernst Öpik.

The objective of the mission, named Comet Interceptor, is to study a comet from the Öpik–Oort cloud which surrounds the sun. 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, said the European Space Agency's website. Interstellar objects such as this can offer completely new information about the origin of life in our solar system as well as potential future threats.

"This is indeed a breakthrough in our space technology -- it is the first time we are able to participate in a major mission with our technology since the Soviet space program closed for Estonian researchers and engineers," director of Tartu Observatory Anu Reinart said.

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

"The consistent commitment and resources required for developing technology, however, exceed the capabilities of a single research team. Whether or not we will be able to make use of this opportunity that has opened up for Estonia, bring back young talent and face major challenges, now depends on Estonia's financing of research and innovation," Reinart said.

The Comet Interceptor mission will travel to an as-yet undiscovered comet, making a flyby of the chosen target when it is on the approach to Earth's orbit. Three spacecraft will perform simultaneous observations from multiple points around the comet, creating a 3D profile of a 'dynamically new' object that contains unprocessed material surviving from the dawn of the Solar System.

Estonia is represented in the consortium of Comet Interceptor by Mihkel Pajusalu, researcher at Tartu Observatory's faculty of science and technology, and Andris Slavinskis, senior research fellow at the same faculty. Pajusalu and Slavinskis started their careers in the ESTCube student satellite team and have completed their respective postdoctoral research at MIT and NASA Ames Research Center.


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Editor: Helen Wright, Dario Cavegn

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