NASA Developing Comet Harpoon for Sample Return
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 Plexiglas 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.
Comets are frozen chunks of ice and dust left over from our solar system’s formation. As such, scientists want a closer look at them for clues to the origin of planets and ultimately, ourselves. “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,” says Wegel.
Scientists at the Goddard Astrobiology Analytical Laboratory have found amino acids in samples of comet Wild 2 from NASA’s Stardust mission, and in various carbon-rich meteorites. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, the workhorse molecules of life, used in everything from structures like hair to enzymes, the catalysts that speed up or regulate chemical reactions. The research gives support to the theory that a “kit” of ready-made parts created in space and delivered to Earth by meteorite and comet impacts gave a boost to the origin of life.
“Bringing back a comet sample will also let us analyze it with advanced instruments that won’t fit on a spacecraft or haven’t been invented yet,” adds Dr. Joseph Nuth, a comet expert at NASA Goddard and lead scientist on the project.
Of course, there are other ways to gather a sample, like using a drill. However, any mission to a comet has to overcome the challenge of operating in very low gravity. Comets are small compared to planets, typically just a few miles across, so their gravity is correspondingly weak, maybe a millionth that of Earth, according to Nuth. “A spacecraft wouldn’t actually land on a comet; it would have to attach itself somehow, probably with some kind of harpoon. So we figured if you have to use a harpoon anyway, you might as well get it to collect your sample,” says Nuth.
“You can’t do this by crunching numbers in a computer, because nobody has done it before -- the data doesn’t exist yet,” says Nuth. “We need to get data from experiments like this before we can build a computer model. We’re working on answers to the most basic questions, like how much powder charge do you need so your harpoon doesn’t bounce off or go all the way through the comet. We want to prove the harpoon can penetrate deep enough, collect a sample, decouple from the tip, and retract the sample collection device.”
The spacecraft will probably have multiple sample collection harpoons with a variety of powder charges to handle areas on a comet with different compositions, according to the team. After they have finished their proof-of-concept work, they plan to apply for funding to develop an actual instrument. “Since instrument development is more expensive, we need to show it works first,” says Nuth.
NASA’s recently-funded mission to return a sample from an asteroid, called OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security - Regolith Explorer), will gather surface material using a specialized collector. However, the surface can be altered by the harsh environment of space. “The next step is to return a sample from the subsurface because it contains the most primitive and pristine material,” said Wegel.
Both Rosetta and OSIRIS-REx will significantly increase our ability to navigate to, rendezvous with, and locate specific interesting regions on these foreign bodies. The fundamental research on harpoon-based sample retrieval by Wegel and his team is necessary so the technology is available in time for a subsurface sample return mission.