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NASA developing comet harpoon for sample return

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

This is an artist's concept of a comet harpoon embedded in a comet. The harpoon tip has been rendered semi-transparent so the sample collection chamber inside can be seen. Credit: NASA/Chris Meaney/Walt Feimer

The best way to grab a sample of a rotating comet that is racing through the inner solar system at up to 150,000 miles per hour while spewing chunks of ice, rock and dust may be to avoid the risky business of landing on it. Instead, researchers want to send a spacecraft to rendezvous with a comet, then fire a harpoon to rapidly acquire samples from specific locations with surgical precision while hovering above the target. Using this "standoff" technique would allow samples to be collected even from areas that are much too rugged or dangerous to permit the landing and safe operation of a spacecraft.

Scientists at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. are in the early stages of working out the best design for a sample-collecting comet harpoon. In a lab the size of a large closet stands a metal ballista (large crossbow) nearly six feet tall, with a bow made from a pair of truck leaf springs and a bow string made of steel cable 1/2 inch thick. The ballista is positioned to fire vertically downward into a bucket of target material. For safety, it's pointed at the floor, because it could potentially launch test harpoon tips about a mile if it was angled upwards. An electric winch mechanically pulls the bow string back to generate a precise level of force, up to 1,000 pounds, firing projectiles to velocities upwards of 100 feet per second.

Donald Wegel of NASA Goddard, lead engineer on the project, places a test harpoon in the bolt carrier assembly, steps outside the lab and moves a heavy wooden safety door with a thick plexiglass window over the entrance. After dialing in the desired level of force, he flips a switch and, after a few-second delay, the crossbow fires, launching the projectile into a 55-gallon drum full of cometary simulant -- sand, salt, pebbles or a mixture of each. The ballista produces a uniquely impressive thud upon firing, somewhere between a rifle and a cannon blast.

"We had to bolt it to the floor, because the recoil made the whole testbed jump after every shot," said Wegel. "We're not sure what we'll encounter on the comet – the surface could be soft and fluffy, mostly made up of dust, or it could be ice mixed with pebbles, or even solid rock. Most likely, there will be areas with different compositions, so we need to design a harpoon that's capable of penetrating a reasonable range of materials. The immediate goal though, is to correlate how much energy is required to penetrate different depths in different materials. What harpoon tip geometries penetrate specific materials best? How does the harpoon mass and cross section affect penetration? The ballista allows us to safely collect this data and use it to size the cannon that will be used on the actual mission."