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"Comet Biter" Developed
Comet Biter Article
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Mexican engineer obtains support to bring to Earth samples of dust and rocks.

Reforma, Thursday May 9th, 2013; Culture Section; pp. 25.

Science: NASA selects development of young researcher.

Diana Saavedra

With the design of a series of ball-shaped devices that could "bite" the dust of comets and asteroids to bring samples to Earth for their study, Doctor Juan Arrieta Camacho (Mexico, 1978) received support from NASA.

"One of the greatest problems for sample return missions is that we have not sent an actual human to collect the sample, and the amount of collected material is very small. With this system we could bring up to a kilogram of rocks and dust from comets. With the Hayabusa mission, the Japanese attempted to to visit asteroid Itokawa. They were unable to collect the sample [as planned], but brought minuscule particles to Earth" explained in an phone interview [Arrieta] who has worked for four years at the Agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Arrieta Camacho's project called "The Regolith Biters: A Divide-And-Conquer Architecture for Sample Return Missions" aims to solve this problem without approaching the comet or asteroid because these bodies are small and their gravity is not sufficient to attract the ship.

"What I am proposing is that, instead of attempting to approach them [the small bodies], we should remain separated by a given distance, say, a couple thousand kilometers, and at that distance we would fire many small devices that would reach the surface by themselves, and when they collide---just like a bear trap---they would close their "mouth", bite the dust of an asteroid, and bounce back."

"Once they bounced back, the spacecraft attempts to capture them to bring them back to Earth. This would allow samples to be taken from bodies that are difficult to approach. And that is why that is the name of the project: "dust biter"", Arrieta explained.

When announcing the awards of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Program, NIAC, (to which the Mexican belongs), the space agency specified that it only supported 28 proposals with the potential to transform the future of aerospace missions, develop new capabilities, or significantly improve the operation, launch, and construction of aerospace systems.

"Each project represents the most creative ideas for future technologies that we could apply to the frontiers of space missions", said Michael Gazarik, director of the Space Technology Program of the Agency.

The project of the Mexican implies a challenge and a novel form of visualizing the problem of collecting samples of "space dust", and an clever solution to the problem.

"The first thing I need to demonstrate with this [financial] support is that the pieces can survive the impact and, later, that once they bounce it will be possible to capture them" commented Arrieta Camacho.

NASA measures its technology in various levels. Level 1 is an idea in the mind of the investigator (researcher), and level 7 is equivalent to a mission ready to launch. In the case of the young scientist [Arrieta], the project must demonstrate that is capable of reaching level 3.

"In my case, I believe that the size of the devices should be smaller than 50 cm in diameter, because my objective is to place many of them, as the reliability of the architecture is based in numbers".

"I imagine them similar to balls, with a mouth similar to the Pac-Man game, which closes when he catches a ghost. NASA's plan and dream is to collect more than one kilogram of material, and this project could capture tens of grams in each device", described the Mexican engineer who works in the Cassini mission.

A Navigator

Back in 2009, Juan Arrieta Camacho started working at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory as an specialist in the Cassini space mission. He studied Chemical Engineering in Universidad Iberoamericana, and a PhD in applied mathematics in Carnegie Mellon University.

"I am a navigator. My job is to calculate the maneuvers that allow the spacecraft to fly around Saturn and its moons in the way it does".

"75% of my time is Cassini, and 25% is the design of the dust biter".