NASA is looking at landing spacecraft on asteroids and comets by firing harpoons into their surfaces.
The space agency, which would be following the footsteps of its European counterpart which landed Philae on a comet last year, plans on using harpoons and tethers to explore multiple comets or asteroids in the future.
A spacecraft would fly close to the target and cast an extending tether towards its prey, before attaching itself with a harpoon that’s attached to the tether, NASA says.
The spacecraft would then “reel out” the tether and turn on a brake that collects energy as the spacecraft accelerates.
“Hitchhiking a celestial body is not as simple as sticking out your thumb, because it flies at an astronomical speed and it won’t stop to pick you up,” said space agency scientist said Masahiro Ono.
“Instead of a thumb, our idea is to use a harpoon and a tether.”
The tethers are intended to be reusable and anywhere between 62 and 620 miles long, meaning they could explore many targets on one mission.
When the spacecraft is done with the comet or asteroid it has landed on, it would be able to use the energy collected from the braking process to retrieve the tether.
“This kind of hitchhiking could be used for multiple targets in the main asteroid belt or the Kuiper Belt, even five to 10 in a single mission,” Ono said.
However, this is still an early stage research project from the NASA scientists and so is a long way from becoming a reality.
As the ESA proved last year, it isn’t easy to catch an asteroid, let alone land something on the surface of it.
When Philae touched down on the comet towards the end of last year it bounced on the surface several times and space scientists thought they had lost the probe.
The harpoon landers of the spacecraft also failed to launch properly meaning that it hasn’t been properly attached to the comet’s surface.
If NASA is going to attempt to harpoon itself to a comet in the future, then it will need to ensure the materials used for its spacecraft are up to the job.