NASA to Create High-Tech Space Harpoon for Science, Awesomeness

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NASA / Chris Meaney / Walt Feimer

It’s the news that the world has been waiting for since man first considered the possibility of the space whale–and a development that will make you proud of the minds at NASA in a whole new way once more. Scientists at the National Aeronautic and Space Administration are working on the creation of a new spacecraft that will not only be more maneuverable than previous vessels, but will also be able to fire a retrievable harpoon.

Admittedly, the harpoon isn’t intended for space whales–sorry, Ultra Boy–but for soil samples from comets and other passing debris that may be of interest. The high-tech harpoon will contain all the necessary equipment to be able to not only penetrate the surface of its target, but also collect and store samples, and free itself before traveling back to its home aboard the new spaceship.

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NASA lead engineer Donald Wegel explained some of the problems facing scientists in their current task:

We’re not sure what we’ll encounter on the comet – the surface could be soft and fluffy, mostly made up of dust, or it could be ice mixed with pebbles, or even solid rock. Most likely, there will be areas with different compositions, so we need to design a harpoon that’s capable of penetrating a reasonable range of materials. The immediate goal though, is to correlate how much energy is required to penetrate different depths in different materials. What harpoon tip geometries penetrate specific materials best? How does the harpoon mass and cross section affect penetration?

Even as NASA scientists are working on the best design for the space harpoon, the European Space Agency already has one in use; the Rosetta mission is armed with a harpoon to attach a probe to the surface of a comet in 2014, which will allow the comet’s surface to be analyzed. But Wegel is confident that the NASA effort will nonetheless represent a step forward in space harpoons. “The Rosetta harpoon is an ingenious design,” he admits, “but it does not collect a sample.”

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Graeme McMillan is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @Graemem or on Facebook at Facebook/Graeme.McMillan. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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