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Estonian technology to be part of the European Space Agency’s mission for the first time

Researchers from the University of Tartu are participating in an international space mission with the European Space Agency to intercept a comet. The mission was picked from more than 20 mission proposals.

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. 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.

To carry out such an ambitious mission, Estonian researchers alongside partners from Aalto University in Finland and the Finnish VTT Technical Research Center, will develop an Optical Imager for Comets (OPIC), based on new generation technology. In the future, it could be helpful in noticing dangerous objects approaching the Earth as well as used in the control systems of autonomous robot vehicles. The UT Tartu Observatory has already looked into the possibilities of co-operating with TalTech and Estonian enterprises Milrem, Hedgehog and Crystalspace.

Breakthrough in space tech

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.

The name of the telescope – OPIC – is not coincidental. It is a reference to the founder of the Estonian astonomy school, Ernst Öpik, who is also one of the two researchers behind the name of the Öpik–Oort cloud. Öpik started the co-operation between Tartu and Harvard universities in the field of observing meteors in the years 1930–1934, founded the meteor research work group at Harvard, and created the theory of meteors burning in space and meteorites colliding with planets.

OPIC can be developed thanks to the cameras that have already been to space: on the first Estonian satellite ESTCube-1 and on the European Student Earth Orbiter. Experiences gained from the development process of the Earth Observation Imager are useful as well.

“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 the research groups of 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.

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