NASA is Taking a Page From Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Seriously.

NASA is Taking a Page From Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Seriously.
Image from NASA

It was only a matter of time before someone at NASA found something in a Douglas Adams book that he could try and turn into a reality. 

The time is finally upon us. Right now, NASA scientists are really, truly, seriously working on a project inspired by the immortal science fiction comedy classic of a series, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It involves harpoons and tethers and comets and somehow, somewhere in this whole thing we are absolutely certain that the correct answer to some question will be 42. (Spoiler alert: That's the answer to the "Great Question of Life, the Universe and Everything.")

For the uninitiated, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is the first book in a science fiction series by Douglas Adams. The book starts with a character named Arthur Dent. He's an Earth-dwelling human right up until his home planet is obliterated by some aliens. Dent and his best friend only avoid the fate of the planet by hopping onto the alien spaceship. From there they end up ejected into space and then ultimately saved by Zaphod Beeblebrox, a two-headed, three-armed ex-hippie and president of the galaxy, and taken aboard his spaceship, "Heart of Gold." They then proceed to roam and bounce across the galaxy and such, having adventures while Adams writes funny stuff about it all. It's a good series, just the sort that the kinds of people who, you know, end up working at NASA probably devoured when they were 13. In this case, we're pretty sure somebody did. 

The Comet Hitchhiker idea got funding last year through the NASA Innovative Advanced Concept program. Since then NASA scientists at the Jet Propulsion Lab in California have been hammering out the details of how exactly the idea would become a reality.

The way it would work, according to Masahiro Ono, the head of the project, is a spacecraft would nose up to a comet (asteroids are also an option) and shoot a harpoon into it. Once it was tethered to the spacecraft would let out some line while applying a break as it moved farther and farther away from the comet. The breaking creates kinetic energy. The probe could then land softly on the comet and once it was ready to move on, the spacecraft would send itself back out along the tether. When the tether was yanked out of the comet toward the spacecraft, all of that built up kinetic energy would send the spacecraft onto the next destination without ever having to use a bit of fuel. Using this method, a spacecraft could basically slingshot itself from place to place.

Right now, we can only afford to do quick fly-by missions to peer at far away comets and objects in Kuiper Belt because you need a huge amount of expensive fuel to do things like that. With the Comet Hitchhiker approach, NASA would be able to do slower missions that would allow for a closer look at these places in these pockets of outer-space. The Comet Hitchhiker method could also speed things up: By thumbing a ride on a comet NASA scientists think a spacecraft could get to Pluto in five and a half years.  (Keep in mind that when NASA's New Horizons probe reached Pluto back in July it had been traveling for more than nine years.) 

“The Comet Hitchhiker concept is literally to hitch rides on comets to tour around the Solar System,” Ono states on the NASA page explaining the project. "We strongly believe that the comet hitchhiker concept will advance the frontier of space exploration to the most exotic worlds in the Solar System."

The project got $100,000 funding to get started on last year and is eligible to apply for phase two of the grant program which could provide as much as $500,000 in funding for two more years of work, according to Space.com. Ono presented his research last week at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Space Conference last week. He told his audience the next steps are to run simulations and do tests of the concept using mini-harpoons and a surface that's a whole lot like an asteroid or a comet, according to Quartz.   

From here, if Ono and company can pull this whole turning-a-basic-bit-from-a-beloved-science-fiction-series-into-a-reality thing off, the Comet Hitchhiker will, allow spacecraft to, you know, actually hitchhike. And then maybe we'll start living out some other science fiction-y things in real life. Fingers crossed that the things from Alien don't start popping out of astronaut stomachs next.


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