Comet harpoon
Artist concept of a comet harpoon in a comet. NASA

NASA is developing a harpoon-like object in an effort to collect data from flying comets.

The idea behind the space tool is that it will pierce the comet's surface, suck up samples, and bring them back to the spacecraft and then to Earth.

Bringing back a comet sample will also let us analyze it with advanced instruments that won't fit on a spacecraft or haven't been invented yet, NASA comet expert and project lead scientist Joseph Nuth said in a statement Thursday.

Donald Wegel of NASA Goddard, lead engineer on the project, noted that scientists are not sure what to expect when it comes to piercing a comet's surface.

We're not sure what we'll encounter on the comet - the surface could be soft and fluffy, mostly made up of dust, or it could be ice mixed with pebbles, or even solid rock, Wegel said in a statement. Most likely, there will be areas with different compositions, so we need to design a harpoon that's capable of penetrating a reasonable range of materials. The immediate goal though, is to correlate how much energy is required to penetrate different depths in different materials.

NASA officials want to collect data in an effort to understand what role comets played in bringing life to Earth.

One of the most inspiring reasons to go through the trouble and expense of collecting a comet sample is to get a look at the 'primordial ooze' - biomolecules in comets that may have assisted the origin of life, Wegel said.

The project is still in a proof-of-concept stage, according to NASA, which means they have to show the harpoon will probably work before they are granted any funding.

Since instrument development is more expensive, we need to show it works first, Nuth said.

Here is a video that explains how the comet harpoon could work.