A comet in space.
NASA wants to harpoon comets to collect subsurface dirt. (Photo Credit: CC BY-SA/Philipp Salzgeber/salzgeber)

Space landings are sensitive maneuvers, particularly when the landing pad is streaking through the cosmos at 150,000 mph. In order to obtain subsurface dirt samples from speeding comets, NASA has designed a hollow-tipped comet harpoon that, when fired from an in-space harpoon gun, can embed itself into the heart of a comet, collect samples, disengage and reel back into a hovering spacecraft.

The power of the comet harpoon gun

In a lab at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., a six-foot-long, industrial-strength ballista made from truck carriage springs and half-inch steel cable is being prepped for use. According to Wired, the comet harpoon gun can generate up to 1,000 pounds of force. That is sufficient to fire a test harpoon upward about a mile at Earth gravity, according to NASA spokesman Bill Steigerwald.

Lead NASA engineer for the comet harpoon project Dr. Donald Wegel told Wired that a hollow-tipped harpoon is necessary for the missions that are expected.

“It has to remain reliably open as the tip penetrates the comet’s surface, but then it has to close tightly and detach from the tip so the sample can be pulled back into the spacecraft,” Wegel explained.

Research scientists expect the comet harpoon to penetrate a 250-liter drum filled with the type of dirt composite that would be found on a comet: sand, salt, pebbles, etc.

“We’re not sure what we’ll encounter on the comet,” said Wegel. “The surface could be soft and fluffy, mostly made up of dust, or it could be ice mixed with pebbles, or even solid rock.”

Stardust memories of a comet

NASA’s Stardust mission previously discovered that comets can be partly composed of amino acids that build proteins and make life possible. The comet Wild 2, which is rich in carbon, is a prime example of an amino acid-laden comet.

This comet and others like it have fueled scientific theories regarding life coming to Earth from space.

“One of the most inspiring reasons to go through the trouble and expense of collecting a comet sample is to get a look at the ‘primordial ooze’ — biomolecules in comets that may have assisted the origin of life,” Wegel said in a press release.

Osiris-Rex and the asteroid

In terms of related missions, NASA’s Osiris-Rex mission (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security — Regolith Explorer), is expected to blast off in 2016. A spacecraft will collect surface samples from an asteroid, unlike the comet harpoon, which will dig deeper.

Until the various missions are scheduled to venture into space, NASA scientists will continue with laboratory simulations as a means of preparation.

NASA’s comet harpoon

Sources

Amino acids Wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amino_acid

Goddard Space Flight Center: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/goddard/home/index.html

NASA: http://www.nasa.gov/topics/solarsystem/features/comet-harpoon.html

NASA Osiris-Rex mission: http://sci2.esa.int/Conferences/MarcoPolo-ws08/The_OSIRIS_mission_-_Dante_Lauretta.pdf

NASA Stardust mission: http://stardust.jpl.nasa.gov/home/index.html

PC World: http://bit.ly/tbQaHQ

Wild 2 comet: http://cometography.com/pcomets/081p.html

Wired: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/12/nasa-comet-harpoon/

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