Students crash rockets into the ground to test sample return proposal

Nov. 1, 2013 at 6:03 PM
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SEATTLE, Nov. 1 (UPI) -- University of Washington students are crashing rockets into the ground -- on purpose, they say -- to see if samples can be returned from extreme environments.

Rockets launched from a balloon have been deliberately directed into a dry lake bed in Nevada in early tests of a concept that could be used to collect and return samples from forbidding environments like an erupting volcano, a melting nuclear reactor or even an asteroid in space, a faculty research leader said.

"We're trying to figure out what the maximum speed is that a rocket can survive a hard impact," said Robert Winglee, head of the university Department of Earth and Space Sciences, who supervises an annual trek to the Nevada desert for rocket experiments.

The project, dubbed Sample Return Systems for Extreme Environments, envisions a rocket that will hit a surface and, as it burrows in a short distance, collect a sample and funnel it to an interior capsule.

That capsule will be attached by tether to a balloon or a spacecraft, which would immediately reel in the capsule to recover the sample, Winglee said.

"The novel thing about this is that it developed out of our student rocket class," he said. "It's been a successful class, but there were a significant number of rockets that went ballistically into the ground. We learned a lot of physics from those crashes."

The researchers say they will conduct more tests next year, with rockets fired from altitude into the ground at twice the speed of sound, about 1,520 mph.

"And survive -- that's the tricky part," Winglee said.

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