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New space mission could intercept another interstellar visitor like Oumuamua

The European Space Agency hopes to visit another comet, or perhaps an object coming from even deeper in space.

An illustration of the comet interceptor concept

An upcoming space mission aims to land on a yet-to-be-discovered comet or perhaps an even more far-out object similar to the mysterious interstellar visitor Oumuamua. The European Space Agency said Wednesday that it's selected "Comet Interceptor" as a new fast-class mission that could launch in 2028. 

The mission includes three spacecraft that could visit a so-called "pristine" or "dynamically new" comet carrying material that dates back to the birth of our solar system.

"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," says Günther Hasinger, ESA's director of science, in a news release. 

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The mission could also take advantage of a potential future discovery of an even more interesting object, perhaps originating from beyond our solar system.

"The huge scientific achievements of Giotto and Rosetta -- our legacy missions to comets -- are unrivaled, but now it is time to build upon their successes and visit a pristine comet, or be ready for the next 'Oumuamua-like interstellar object." 

ESA's Rosetta mission visited the comet 67P and sent a lander named Philae down to its surface. 

ESA anticipates that Comet Interceptor could be launched along with its planned exoplanet-studying ARIEL spacecraft about nine years from now. The three spacecraft will hang out at the L2 Lagrangian point waiting for a suitable target. They would then travel together to whatever comet or more interesting object is chosen, separating shortly before arrival to provide different perspectives and more comprehensive 3D data on their destination.

Most space missions are designed and built with a specific destination in mind. But because of advances in our ability to observe the solar system, Comet Interceptor can wait in space until scientists determine where to send it.

Visiting a pristine comet could provide a whole host of new insights into the story of our solar system. A rendezvous with an interstellar visitor like Oumuamua could have even further reaching implications and astronomers believe that such cosmic travelers could be more common than previously thought.