vinces99 writes: 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. “We’re trying to figure out what the maximum speed is that a rocket can survive a hard impact,” said Robert Winglee, a UW professor of Earth and space sciences, who heads that department and leads the annual trek to the desert. The idea for a project called “Sample Return Systems for Extreme Environments” 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 novel thing about this is that it developed out of our student rocket class. It’s been a successful class, but there were a significant number of rockets that went ballistically into the ground. We learned a lot of physics from those crashes,” Winglee said. The technology, which recently received $500,000 over two years from NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts, could have a number of applications. It would allow scientists a relatively safe way of recovering samples in areas of high contamination, such as Japan’s Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant, or from an erupting volcano, or even from an asteroid in space, in advance of a possible mining project.