Landing spacecraft on asteroids is a delicate, precise process that takes a lot of planning. Harpooning a fish, on the other hand, is the work of an instant. A new plan put forth by University of Washington professor Robert Winglee aims to marry these two wildly different actions. The idea is to fire harpoon-like sampling rockets right into the surface of asteroids in order to take mineral samples.
More than simple kamikaze missiles, these space harpoons are to be sophisticated sampling devices, tethered to a secondary capsule capable of making the return trip to Earth. Here's how the system works: The harpoon bores into an asteroid. Holes in the harpoon's head funnel debris from the crash into a second capsule within the rocket's nose cone. This second capsule is then reeled in by the second craft, still in orbit around the asteroid. Securing the capsule, the second craft then cuts the line and makes its way back to Earth. Got all of that?
The idea began to take shape during a classroom excursion to the Nevada desert, when students began testing how much force a rocket could endure when fired directly into the surface of the Earth. Since then, Professor Winglee's concept has secured $500,000 from NASA for its development. Aside from Asteroids, Winglee believes that his concept could also be used to retrieve samples from the harshest terrestrial environments, including irradiated zones like Fukushima and the molten hearts of erupting volcanoes. The chief issue going forward is how to assure the survival of a rocket fired straight into solid asteroid surfaces at speeds up to 1,520 miles per hour.