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ESA’s new mission to intercept a comet

 ‘Comet Interceptor’ has been selected as ESA’s new fast-class mission in its Cosmic Vision Programme. Comprising three spacecraft, 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.

The 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. Its 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.

“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.

“The huge scientific achievements of Giotto and Rosetta – our legacy missions to comets – are unrivalled, 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.”

What is a Fast mission?

Comet Interceptor is a ‘fast’, or F-class mission. The ‘fast’ refers to the implementation time, with a total development duration from selection to launch readiness of about eight years. F-class missions, which have a launch mass of less than 1000 kg, will share the ride into space with a medium-class mission, taking advantage of additional space in the launcher and the boost to the Sun-Earth Lagrange point L2, which is 1.5 million kilometres ‘behind’ Earth as viewed from the Sun.

Comet Interceptor is foreseen for launch as co-passenger with ESA’s exoplanet-studying Ariel spacecraft in 2028. Both missions will be delivered to L2 and from there Comet Interceptor will journey onwards to the chosen target using its own propulsion system.

The selection process has also been fast. Following a call for missions in July 2018, 23 pitches were submitted by the space science community, with six teams subsequently invited to provide more detailed proposals. Among them, Comet Interceptor was chosen at today’s Science Programme Committee to move into a more detailed definition phase.

"We thank the space science community for their excellent proposals, which covered a broad range of novel topics that could be explored within the constraints of the F-class guidelines," says Director Hasinger.

 "This type of innovative mission will play an important role in supplementing ESA’s Science Programme as we plan for the next decades of scientific exploration of our Universe.

"We are also happy to maintain the ‘fast’ mission philosophy by selecting Comet Interceptor within a year since the original call for proposals was made."

What’s new about Comet Interceptor?

Comet Interceptor comprises three spacecraft. The composite spacecraft will wait at L2 for a suitable target, then travel together before the three modules separate a few weeks prior to intercepting the comet. Each module will be equipped with a complementary science payload, providing different perspectives of the comet’s nucleus and its gas, dust, and plasma environment. Such ‘multi-point’ measurements will greatly improve the 3D information needed to understand the dynamic nature of a pristine comet while it is interacting with the constantly changing solar wind environment.

The mission’s instrument suite will draw on heritage from other missions, including a camera based on the one currently flying on the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, along with dust, fields and plasma instruments, as well as a mass spectrometer, like those that flew on ESA’s Rosetta.

Previous comet missions, including ESA’s pioneering spacecraft Giotto and Rosetta, encountered short-period comets. These are comets with orbital periods of less than 200 years that have approached the Sun many times along their orbits in relatively recent times and as a consequence have undergone significant changes: Rosetta’s comet, 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko orbits the Sun once every 6.5 years while Comet 1P/Halley, visited by Giotto and other spacecraft in 1986, returns to our skies every 76 years.

Comet Interceptor is different because it will target a comet visiting the inner Solar System for the first time – perhaps from the vast Oort cloud that is thought to surround the outer reaches of the Sun’s realm. As such, the comet will contain material that has not undergone much processing since the dawn of the Sun and planets. The mission will therefore offer a new insight into the evolution of comets as they migrate inwards from the periphery of the Solar System.

Although much rarer, another example of a potential target is an interstellar interloper from another star system, like the famed ‘Oumuamua that flew past our Sun on a highly inclined orbit in 2017. Studying an interstellar object would offer the chance to explore how comet-like bodies form and evolve in other star systems.

In the past, ‘new’ comets have only been discovered a few months to years before they pass through their closest approach to the Sun, which is too short notice to plan, build and launch a space mission, and for it to travel  to the specific object before it moves away from the Sun again.

Recent advances in ground-based surveys mean that the sky can be scanned more deeply and longer notice can be provided. Pan-STARRS is currently the most proliferous comet discovery machine, with more than half of all new comets per year uncovered by the survey. The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, currently under construction in Chile, will also greatly increase the catalogue of new comets.

In any case, the destination for Comet Interceptor does not need to be known while the mission is being prepared; the spacecraft can be ready and waiting in space for a suitable comet encounter, and is expected to complete its mission within five years of launch.

Notes for editors
The Comet Interceptor proposal team comprises an international group of experts led by Geraint Jones (UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory, UK) and Colin Snodgrass (University of Edinburgh, UK). Find out more on the proposing team’s website:

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Treasury Designates Russian Financial Institution Supporting North Korean Sanctions Evasion

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) today announced the designation of a Russian entity that has assisted North Korea in evading sanctions to access the international financial system. Today’s action targets Russian-registered Russian Financial Society pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13382 for having provided, or attempted to provide, financial, material, technological, or other support for, or goods or services in support of, U.S.-designated Dandong Zhongsheng Industry & Trade Co. Ltd (Dandong Zhongsheng), an entity that is owned and controlled by, directly or indirectly, U.S.- and United Nations (UN)-designated Foreign Trade Bank (FTB), North Korea’s primary foreign exchange bank.

“Treasury continues to enforce existing U.S. and UN sanctions against individuals and entities in Russia and elsewhere who facilitate illicit trade with North Korea. Those who attempt to circumvent our authorities to provide the DPRK with access to international financial markets expose themselves to significant sanctions risk,” said Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Sigal Mandelker.

Russian Financial Society began to provide financial services to North Korea immediately upon attaining their non-banking credit organization license, which allows Russian Financial Society to transact in multiple foreign currencies. Russian Financial Society provided bank accounts for OFAC-designated Dandong Zhongsheng and to a North Korean chief representative of Korea Zinc Industrial Group, which was also designated for operating in the mining industry in the North Korean economy and for having sold, supplied, or transferred zinc from North Korea, where revenue or goods received may benefit the Government of North Korea.

Since at least 2017 and continuing through 2018, Russian Financial Society has opened multiple bank accounts for Dandong Zhongsheng. These actions have enabled North Korea to circumvent U.S. and UN sanctions to gain access to the global financial system in order to generate revenue for the Kim regime’s nuclear program.

Dandong Zhongsheng was designated by the United States for being owned or controlled by, directly or indirectly, FTB, an entity whose property and interests are blocked pursuant to E.O. 13382. Han Jang Su, FTB’s chief representative in Moscow, played a key part in acquiring banking services from Russian Financial Society. Han Jang Su was designated by the United States on March 31, 2017, for acting for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, FTB. Both Han Jang Su and FTB have also been designated by the UN Security Council Committee pursuant to Resolution 1718 (2006).

Russian Financial Society is the latest Russian financial institution sanctioned by OFAC for providing financial services to North Korea. In August 2018, OFAC designated Russian-registered Agrosoyuz Commercial Bank for knowingly conducting or facilitating a significant transaction on behalf of Han Jang Su.

As a result of today’s action, all property and interests in property of this target that are in the United States or in the possession or control of U.S. persons must be blocked and reported to OFAC. OFAC’s regulations generally prohibit all dealings by U.S. persons or within the United States (including transactions transiting the United States) that involve any property or interests in property of blocked or designated persons.


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Russia, North Korea, The United States

Russia Drops Drug Charges Against Journalist Golunov

MOSCOW, (VOANEWS).- Russia's interior ministry says authorities have dropped their criminal case against anti-corruption journalist Ivan Golunov and that he will be released from house arrest.

Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev said Golunov would be freed later on June 11 due to a lack of evidence or any wrongdoing on his part.

Kolokoltsev also said some police officers involved in the case were suspended and that he would ask Russian President Vladimir Putin to dismiss two senior police officers over the arrest of Golunov.

The moves comes hours after Golonuv's lawyers appealed against his pretrial house arrest on a narcotics charge he denies.

Lawyer Sergei Badamshin said on June 11 that Golunov's house arrest was appealed with the Moscow City Court, as Russian celebrities, journalists, activists, and other supporters of the journalist prepared for a march in the capital to call for his release.

Golunov, a well-known investigative reporter with Latvia-based online news agency Meduza, was arrested on June 6, prompting an outcry over what critics see as politically motivated charges.

On June 8, a Moscow court placed Golunov under pretrial house arrest for a period of two months.

Golunov, 36, was charged with attempting to sell a large amount of illegal drugs -- a charge he and his supporters reject as a retaliation by Moscow authorities for his reporting on corruption among officials.

Advocates for Golonuv said illegal drugs and paraphernalia had been planted in his backpack and in his Moscow apartment.

The reporter could have faced up to 20 years in prison if tried and convicted.

Golunov suffered bruises, cuts, a concussion, and a broken rib during or after his arrest.

Golunov's arrest had provoked outrage from the country's media, with three leading non-state newspapers -- Vedomosti, Kommersant, and RBK -- publishing identical front pages that questioned the motives behind the move.

The Paris-based press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders also warned that the arrest could mark a "significant escalation in the harassment" of independent media in Russia.

In New York, the Committee to Protect Journalists noted that Russia has "a long history of politically motivated charges against independent reporters."

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Arianespace and ESA announce Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer launch contract

BARCELONA, (ESA).- The Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, Juice, will ride into space on an Ariane launch vehicle, Arianespace and ESA confirmed today at the International Paris Air Show.

Juice is the first large-class mission in ESA's Cosmic Vision 2015–2025 programme. Its mission is devoted to complete a unique tour of the Jupiter system.

Juice will spend at least three years making detailed observations of the giant gaseous planet Jupiter and in-depth studies of three of its largest moons and potentially ocean-bearing satellites, Ganymede, Europa and Callisto.

The launch period for Juice will start in mid-2022 aboard an Ariane 5 or an Ariane 64 launch vehicle – depending on the final launch slot from from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana, South America.

The satellite will have a mass at liftoff of approximately six tonnes and will be placed in an Earth escape orbit in a direction to Jupiter starting a journey of 600 million kilometres. After a 7.5-year cruise, which includes gravitational assists from Earth, Venus and Mars, the spacecraft will enter orbit around the giant planet in October 2029.

The Jupiter tour includes several flybys of each planet-sized world, and ends with orbit insertion around Ganymede, the largest moon in the Solar System.

Juice will carry the most powerful scientific payload ever flown to the outer Solar System. It consists of 10 state-of-the-art instruments plus one science experiment that uses the spacecraft telecommunication system with ground-based radio telescopes.

Juice's instruments will enable scientists to compare each of these icy satellites and to investigate the potential for such bodies to harbour habitable environments such as subsurface oceans. They will also carry out observations of Jupiter, its atmosphere, magnetosphere, other satellites and rings.

Airbus Defense and Space is developing and building the Juice spacecraft. As prime contractor for design, development, production, and testing of the satellite, Airbus will lead a consortium of more than 80 companies covering more than 110 contracts.

“Juice is the first ‘large-class’ mission in our Cosmic Vision programme and of prime importance for investigating the habitability potential of ocean-worlds beyond our own,” said Günther Hasinger, ESA's Director of Science. “We’re delighted to confirm it will have a flying start with an Ariane launch vehicle, setting it on course to fulfil its scientific goals in the Jupiter system.”

Stéphane Israël, Chief Executive Officer of Arianespace, added: “Arianespace is honored to be awarded this new scientific mission from ESA, which will advance our understanding of the Universe. Less than a year after the launch of BepiColombo to Mercury, we have won the launch contract for the Juice mission to Jupiter’s moons, further confirmation of Arianespace’s ability to ensure Europe’s independent access to space for all types of missions. We are once again marshaling all of our strengths and capabilities to support Europe’s spaceborne ventures, with a launch services offering based on Ariane 5 and Ariane 6 so we can deliver the availability and flexibility needed by ESA for its latest emblematic mission.”

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Taiwan aiming to strengthen cooperation with Central America: VP Chen

TAIPEI, (CNA).- Taiwan is hoping to forge closer cooperation with countries in Central America in several fields, Vice President Chen Chien-jen (陳建仁) said Tuesday while receiving the visiting president of the Central American Parliament (Parlacen).

"Over the years, Parlacen has demonstrated support for Taiwan at various international events," Chen said during his meeting with Parlacen President Irma Segunda Amaya Echeverría at the Presidential Office.

Chen said that over the past 20 years, Taiwan has participated in more than 120 regional cooperation schemes through the Central American Integration System (SICA), as it sought to deepen cooperation with its Central American allies in the areas of infrastructure, medical health, education and agriculture.

Since Amaya took over the helm of the regional assembly of SICA last October, she has been promoting regional integration and development, with a focus on issues such as gender equality, the right of women to participate in politics, immigration and human rights, Chen noted.

"As a member of the global village, Taiwan is willing and able to contribute to the international community," Chen said, expressing the hope that Parlacen will continue its solid support for Taiwan in the international arena.

He said Central America is a key region in Taiwan's global strategic planning and that is why the government has sent several investment assessment teams to the region and has been encouraging Taiwanese businessmen to invest there.

"We also look forward to expanding our cooperation with Central America in various areas in the future," he said.

Amaya arrived in Taiwan on Monday at the head of a five-member delegation on a five-day visit aimed at strengthening bilateral and multilateral parliamentary exchanges.

She was received by Chen as President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) had to change her schedule to make some impromptu inspections of flood prevention facilities amid torrential downpours brought by a typical weather front in the current plum rain season.

Founded in 1991, Parlacen six member states are Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Panama and the Dominican Republic, while Taiwan has observer status in the body.

Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua remain the only three diplomatic allies of Taiwan in Parlacen, since the other three switched recognition to China between 2017 and 2018. 

(By Stacy Hsu)

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