To study the composition of comets, NASA scientists have engineered a space harpoon that would collect rock samples and return them to Earth for study. The harpoon’s tip would be fired from a craft hovering near the target comet and after penetrating the surface and collecting mineral samples, it would return to the craft. The concept of a harpoon is meant to get around landing a craft on a comet’s surface, which typically has a very irregular geography as well as extremely low gravity.
What’s the Big Idea?
The study of comets has been instrumental in our understanding of life in the cosmos. In 2002, NASA’s Stardust mission found an amino acid, glycine, which is used by living organisms to create proteins. This supported the theory that perhaps some elements essential to life were delivered to Earth from afar. Scientists also hope that by better understanding the composition of comets, we might better understand how to destroy one if Earth was in its trajectory.