NASA has announced plans for a new way to study comets by harpooning the flying pieces of rock and ice sometime in the near future.
According to Wired, this system will allow scientists to collect samples from the comets -- and return with the material -- all without ever having to land on their surface.
While the project is still very much in its early stages, NASA's description of its current tests sound incredible:
In a lab the size of a large closet stands a metal ballista (large crossbow) nearly six feet tall, with a bow made from a pair of truck leaf springs and a bow string made of steel cable 1/2 inch thick. The ballista is positioned to fire vertically downward into a bucket of target material. For safety, it's pointed at the floor, because it could potentially launch test harpoon tips about a mile if it was angled upwards. An electric winch mechanically pulls the bow string back to generate a precise level of force, up to 1,000 pounds, firing projectiles to velocities upwards of 100 feet per second.
Because scientists don't know what to expect from the surface of a comet -- it could be solid rock or nothing but dust -- NASA's instrument has to be ready to penetrate almost any type of material.
Besides discovering what comets are made of, NASA says there's another particularly good reason for studying their consistency: potential collisions. If scientists know more about comets, they may be more ready to deal with the threat of a comet on a collision course with Earth in the future.
However, according to Wired, this experiment will still need funding if it ever hopes to get off the ground.
Still, this experiment isn't the only one looking to bring back a piece of stardust. In fact, the Osiris-Rex mission, NASA's first attempt, and is scheduled to launch in 2016. That mission, however, will only collect surface material, and not internal matter like may be possible with the harpoon method.