Since the beginning of the space age NASA has explored our solar system, bringing back unprecedented scientific knowledge. However only a handful of missions over the past 50 years have actually collected and returned samples from these far off places.
Scientists at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. are in the early stages of working out the best design for a sample-collecting comet harpoon.
The Comet Nucleus Sample Return mission will collect subsurface samples from a comet and return them to Earth. Comets and asteroids are leftover remnants from the early solar system and by studying samples from these objects, we can learn more about the formation of our solar system and may find clues to the origin of life on Earth.
As the harpoon penetrates into the comet, it fills its inner sample cartridge with subsurface material as it goes deeper. When it reaches its maximum depth the sample cartridge closure mechanism shuts, trapping all the material inside it. The sample cartridge is then withdrawn from the outer harpoon sheath and pulled back into the spacecraft.