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.

The idea 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 technology, which recently received $500,000 over two years from NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts, could have a number of applications. 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.

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

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