NASA lookes at 'harpooning' comet samples

Dec. 13, 2011 at 6:05 PM
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GREENBELT, Md., Dec. 13 (UPI) -- NASA says it is working on the design of a "harpoon" that would be fired from a spacecraft into the head of a comet to collect and retrieve samples.

The technology would avoid the necessity of attempting to land a spacecraft on a comet racing through the inner solar system at up to 150,000 mph as it flings off pieces of ice and rock, a NASA release said Tuesday.

The harpoon system would allow a spacecraft to rendezvous with a comet at a safe "stand-off" distance then fire a harpoon device to rapidly acquire samples from specific locations with surgical precision while hovering above the target, the researchers said.

That would allow samples to be collected from areas considered too rugged or dangerous to permit the safe landing and operation of a spacecraft, they said.

Scientists at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., are experimenting with a prototype sample-collecting comet harpoon, firing it by means of a huge crossbow into a target material.

The crossbow is powered by an electric winch that mechanically pulls the bow string back to generate a precise level of force, up to 1,000 pounds, firing projectiles to velocities of nearly 100 feet per second.

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