Crashing rockets could lead to novel sample-return technology (w/ Video)

Crashing rockets could lead to novel sample-return technology
An artist’s conception shows a sampling rocket, with a tether linking a return capsule inside the rocket to a recovery craft. Credit: Chad Truitt / UW

( —During spring break the last five years, a University of Washington class has headed to the Nevada desert to launch rockets and learn more about the science and engineering involved. Sometimes, the launch would fail and a rocket smacked hard into the ground.

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 Robert Winglee, a UW professor of Earth and space sciences, who heads that department and leads the annual trek to the desert.

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 . 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 $500,000 over two years from NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts, could have a number of applications, he said.

UW Earth and space sciences faculty and students used a kite to hoist a rocket high above the Nevada desert in March 2013, then fired the rocket directly into a dry lakebed.

On Earth, it would allow scientists a relatively safe way of recovering samples in areas of high contamination, such as Japan's Fukushima Daichi plant and the Chernobyl nuclear power facility in Ukraine, both of which suffered catastrophic failures. Or it could collect samples from an erupting volcano to give Earth scientists a better understanding of the processes at work during one of nature's most violent shows. In either case, the tethered sample-return capsule could be hauled in by a balloon or a plane.

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 Robert Hoyt of Tethers Unlimited Inc. of Bothell, Wash., which has developed tether technology for use in , on Earth and in the oceans.

In the first phase of testing earlier this year in Black Rock Desert, about 100 miles north of Reno, Nev., rockets were fired from an altitude of 3,000 feet. It turned out that wasn't high enough for proper performance testing, Winglee said, but even then components of the system survived supersonic impact under power.

The second phase of testing could take place in California next summer, with follow up tests a year later. Rockets would be fired from a higher altitude in an attempt to achieve twice the speed of sound, or about 1,520 mph.

"And survive – that's the tricky part," Winglee said.

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User comments

Nov 03, 2013
Maybe we should farm the job out to the North Koreans. They seem to be pretty good at crashing rockets lately.

Nov 03, 2013
Hmmm not pointless - just a balance of design, distances and fuels etc....

Sure one can hit an aster, and then collect a sample, but one has to get all the way too it, and then come all the way back....

Personally I feel that coming up close and sinking some anchor lines into it and then drilling a few cores is a lot more straight forward.

Nov 04, 2013
Proper science, learning from the results of experiments.

Nov 04, 2013
Personally I feel that coming up close and sinking some anchor lines into it and then drilling a few cores is a lot more straight forward

I agree. Shooting projectiles is awefully chancy, since you only get one shot per projectile, and there are so many variables in regard to the surface of an irregularly shaped object. If you clamp onto it somehow, then you can sit there as long as you like and take your time.

Maybe if someone wanted to do a quick survey of a bunch of different rocks, or place markers on them, then projectiles might make sense?

At some point in the future, I'm sure we will have a catalog of asteroid types so that we can just look at them from the outside and know what the inside is like. That's gonna take core samples, or maybe some mining explosive to break some asteroids into pieces first though.

Even water ice is as hard as rock when it is extremely cold, so it isn't a trivial task to get inside asteroids.

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