UW News

February 27, 2015

Watch UW team test a new asteroid-sampling rocket

UW News

Take five minutes and experience the life of a rocket scientist building a prototype to bring back samples of objects in space. In these tests, success is nose-diving into the California desert, which stands in for the surface of an asteroid.

photo of Winglee outdoors with rocket in background

UW’s Robert Winglee tests his concept for an asteroid-piercing rocket.Discovery Channel Canada

In the “Asteroid Sampler” video, which aired Jan. 15 on Discovery Channel Canada, a UW team of faculty, graduate students and undergraduates launched a new type of rocket in California. The work is part of a NASA-funded project to build a rocket to collect samples from small objects in our solar system.

“The life of the solar system is actually embedded in those asteroids,” said Robert Winglee, professor of Earth and space sciences, in the video. “It could be the history of life. We could actually find organics, we could find rare Earth minerals. We hope to get to below the surface and see what’s under the hood of those asteroids.”

five people carrying rocket on their shoulders

Team members carry the rocket, nicknamed “Gravedigger,” to its launch site.Discovery Channel Canada

A videographer filmed Winglee and his research group as they attempted an initial rocket launch. Tests mimic piercing an asteroid by shooting the rocket into the air so it plunges down at about 350 miles per hour to burrow into the Earth. The rocket is nicknamed “Gravedigger” because it is built to penetrate 6 feet into the ground.

The first part of the video took place last summer in the Mojave Desert north of Los Angeles. The team tried to launch the rocket by tethering it to a huge helium balloon, but conditions were too windy. Next they tried lifting the rocket with a giant kite but gusts were still too strong.

The second part of the video cuts to December in central California. This time the researchers added a booster rocket to help with the initial launch. After a few attempts the rocket flies straight up and ends in a spectacular crash – just as planned.

“Tests were eventually successful, and more will follow in the future for optimization,” Winglee commented.