During spring break the last five years, a
This year, the session included launches from a balloon that were deliberately directed into a dry lakebed. Far from being failures, these were early tests of a concept that in the future could be used to collect and return samples from forbidding environments - an erupting volcano, a melting nuclear reactor or even an asteroid in space.
"We're trying to figure out what the maximum speed is that a rocket can survive a hard impact," said
The idea for a project called "Sample Return Systems for Extreme Environments" is that the rocket will hit the surface and, as it burrows in a short distance, ports on either side of the nose will 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.
"The novel thing about this is that it developed out of our student rocket class. 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," Winglee said.
The technology, which recently received
Watch video: technology/">http://www.washington.edu/news/2013/10/29/crashing-rockets-could-lead-to-novel-sample-return-technology/
On Earth, it would allow scientists a relatively safe way of recovering samples in areas of high contamination, such as
In space, the system could collect samples from a single asteroid or a series of them, with a "mothership" recovering the tethered capsules and returning them to Earth.
"It would be like taking a core sample before you go mining," Winglee said.
He noted that there has been growing interest in possibly mining asteroids, both for finding substances that are in increasingly short supply on Earth, and potentially to find the natural resources to create fuel for long-term space missions.
For this project, Winglee is working with
In the first phase of testing earlier this year in Black Rock Desert, about 100 miles north of
The second phase of testing could take place in
"And survive - that's the tricky part," Winglee said.
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