Science and Technology

Professor Zita Martins is part of ESA’s new mission team

The Técnico professor is the only Portuguese researcher who is part of the scientific team of ESA’s new mission - Comet Interceptor, which is expected to launch in 2028.

“The invitation naturally arose”, says Zita Martins, professor at the Department of Chemical Engineering (DEQ/IST). Professor Zita Martins was invited to be part of the scientific team of ESA‘s new mission, called Comet Interceptor. “The principal investigators of this mission are British. We had already worked together in other projects, so they invited me to be part of the team”, recalls the Técnico professor. “I was very pleased to receive this invitation”, she says.

Comet Interceptor aims to intercept and analyse in more detail an intact comet that approaches the inner solar system. “We will try to study a certain object from outside the solar system, a very primitive and preserved object that had never been analysed before”, highlights professor Zita Martins. “From this point of view we will try to obtain a lot of information, in terms of geology, chemistry, dimension, etc.”, she adds.

The purpose of this mission is to answer one of the great questions of science: “What is the origin of our solar system?”. As we can’t travel back in time (to 4.6 billion years ago), the best way to answer this question is “through the analysis of certain celestial bodies that have preserved their primitive conditions” explains the Técnico professor. Designated an F-class mission, F standing for Fast, the Comet Interceptor is scheduled to launch in 2028.

This new mission will be launched along with the ARIEL probe, which will study what exoplanets are made of. A mothership and two smaller daughter craft will separate near the comet to conduct different but complementary studies. ESA will use modern equipment such as Pan-STARRS and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, currently under construction in Chile.

According to professor Zita Martins “after the launch it will take a few more years to reach the celestial body and after that it will take some time to analyse the results”. “We will be working in this mission for the next 12 to 15 years”, says the Técnico professor. “So I will be involved in this project much more than a decade” she says, smiling.

The Comet Interceptor will involve scientists and engineers from University College London (UCL), University of Edinburgh, NASA, JAXA, among others. The project will be led by Geraint Jones, Head of Planetary Science Group, UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory. Professor Zita Martins is the only Portuguese scientist on the team. “It brings me great joy to represent Técnico in these collaborations. This was always my goal when I returned to Portugal and to this school. My goal has always been to improve Técnico’s image in this area”, said professor Zita Martins.