Discovery Channel films NASA test at China Lake

By Matthew Denny, NAWCWD Public Affairs

A Discovery Channel Canada film crew, a University of Washington professor and 17 of his students visited the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division May 30-June 1 to complete a test for NASA.

Professor Robert Winglee of the Univer-sity of Washington’s Department of Earth and Space Sciences is studying the creation of the solar system. For the past two years, he has been inventing a system that could be fired into space objects to retrieve core samples.

The test was designed to raise six weather balloons, tethered to rockets and the penetrator, up to 2,500 feet. Once desired altitude was reached, the rocket would be released and fired into the ground, with the penetrator digging some six to eight feet into the ground. The system would then be recovered to assess its performance and condition.

“Testing on [NAWCWD’s] range allows us to assess the survivability of the penetrator component of the proposed sample return system in harder materials,” Winglee said.

China Lake involvement included the Range and Unmanned Systems departments. WD personnel also assisted the university in adjusting its equipment and procedures to meet Navy and Department of Defense safety requirements.

“The goal here today is to test a sample return system that NASA will use to retrieve core samples of planets, moons and asteroids,” said Winglee.

“Until now, the only samples we have gathered in space are from the surface. This will allow us to retrieve a core sample. The insides of asteroids could have the original ingredients of the solar system. I believe that studying core samples will give us a better understanding of how the universe began.”

The film crew interviewed NAWCWD’s Matt Lee, a flight test engineer with Unmanned Systems, about the weather and asked him how wind and heat could affect the testing.

“I took wind readings with an anemometer to determine wind speed before the test,” said Lee, who has been at China Lake for six years. “To stay safe we are required to operate with certain weather constraints. The maximum wind speed that we can test in today is 20 mph.”

Discovery Channel Canada’s television series “The Daily Planet” will be airing the mini-documentary in the fall in Canada and will be available to stream in the U.S. online at

“We are interested in this test because nobody has taken core samples of asteroids before; it has always been surface samples such as rock and dust,” said Carol McGrath, producer for Discovery Channel Canada. “China Lake is a unique testing facility and the Mojave Desert is the perfect place for testing and discovering new technology. I am really impressed with the range team and how innovative they have been when the professor ran into a snag or needed something changed.”

The film crew said they were excited to be in the actual Mojave Desert and was grateful for the opportunity to film the test at NAWCWD’s China Lake.

“I have never seen a group of folks that truly know the meaning of ‘safety first.’ They go above and beyond to make sure the test and everyone involved is extremely safe,” McGrath said. “I like that. I will definitely be coming back to Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division. I am really interested in the innovative projects going on here.”

Discovery Channel Canada interviews Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division’s Matt Lee, a flight test engineer with Unmanned Systems, May 30 during a NASA test at China Lake’s North Range. Lee is using an anemometer to determine wind speed. University of Washington students inflated balloons behind Lee as part of the test. (U.S. Navy photo by Matthew Denny)

Story First Published: 2014-06-18