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Taking a Chip off the Old Asteroid
Taking a Chip off the Old Asteroid
6 Jan 2003
(Source: University of Arkansas)

University Relations
University of Arkansas

Derek Sears
Director, Arkansas-Oklahoma Center for Space and Planetary Science
Professor of chemistry, Fulbright College (479) 575-5204,

Melissa Blouin
Science and research communications manager
(479) 575-5555,


FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- The Arkansas-Oklahoma Center for Space and Planetary Science has moved one step closer to launching an asteroid sample return collector thanks to funding from NASA.

NASA recently announced a grant of $330,000 awarded to the University of Arkansas- and Oklahoma State University-based center and its industrial partner, SpaceWorks of Tucson, Ariz., to develop a sample collector for use with the space center's Hera space mission.

Hera is a proposal being led by the space center to send a spacecraft to three near-Earth asteroids, reconnoiter for 2-1/2 months, then swoop down to collect samples from three sites and return those samples to Earth.

Derek Sears, director of the space center and principal investigator for the mission, said the center has worked with SpaceWorks for about three years.

"They have helped us develop mission concepts and trajectories, and they have helped us in testing collector ideas," he said. "They are a first-rate group and we are very pleased that NASA has shown the confidence in their ideas and in the Hera mission to provide this support. This sign of support is probably worth more than the dollar figure."

The SpaceWorks collector consists of a plastic tray on the end of a flexible arm that is pressed into the surface of the asteroid by the spacecraft. The arm then folds back to place the tray with four times its own weight of surface material in a sample return capsule for return to Earth.

SpaceWorks will supervise the project and handle the mechanical aspects of building the collector. The space center will test the collector, using the Andromeda environmental chamber and microgravity flight tests. Collaborators at the Virginia Technical Institute will provide the plastic material. The microgravity tests will be performed on board NASA's reduced gravity facility, an aircraft that flies in parabolic loops so as to simulate the microgravity of a small asteroid.

The Hera proposal will be submitted to NASA in the summer of 2003. In the meantime, the team wants to demonstrate the technical feasibility of the idea by constructing the prototype and performing tests, Sears said.

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Last Updated: 17 Jan 2003