NASA Scientists Developing Comet Harpoon for Sample Return

Scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center are designing a small harpoon that would fire into and collect samples from nearby comets. Because comets are frozen chunks of ice and dust dating back to the formation of our solar system, they may hold clues to the origin of the planets and life as we know it. Previous NASA missions have already found amino acids, molecules that are important for life and serve as the building blocks of proteins, in comets and meteorites. The new project could discover other ingredients necessary for life, supporting the theory that comet and meteorite impacts may have given a boost to the development of life on Earth by delivering vital biomolecules. Another goal of collecting comet samples is to figure out  how comets are formed.

This information would provide scientists with important details on how best to deflect any dangerous space rocks hurling toward Earth. The NASA team is currently trying to figure out the best tip design, explosive powder charge, mass and cross-section for the harpoon. To do this, they are using a six-foot tall crossbow with a half-inch thick steel cable bow string to fire harpoon tips at various speeds into different materials, such as sand, ice and rock salt. They are also developing a sample collection chamber to nestle into the hollow tip. The NASA team is still in the proof of concept stage for the project. Once they prove that the harpoon will work, they will have to apply for funding to build the instrument.