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"Science fiction is what scientists would do if they could - if they had enough grant money, enough time, and enough brains to do the wonderful things they would like to do."
- Greg Bear

Impactor Determines Composition  
  The use of an impactor to smash into a small celestial body; watching the impact can determine the composition of the small body.  

Explorers from a Martian colony encounter what appears to be a small asteroid. How can you tell what it is made of without actually landing and taking samples?

"There it is. Can you get a spectro?"

"No heat." Wendis shook his head. "I'll have to warm it up with a tracer."

Fire streaked in a thin line from the muzzle of a cannon-like tube mounted beneath the viewing instruments and a tiny, rocket-powered projectile, drove towards the mysterious bulk. It hit, exploding into a cloud of incandescent vapour, and Wendis stared thoughtfully at the brilliant lines on the spectroscope screen.

"... the spectro shows traces of iron, some copper, a little tungsten and a lot of beryllium. Looks unnatural somehow, too much like an alloy."

From The Mechanical Monarch, by E.C. Tubb.
Published by Ace Books in 1958
Additional resources -

As it turns out, it's not an asteroid at all.

The recent Deep Impact program, in which a comet's composition is investigated with the aid of an 850 pound impactor, now seems like a modern incarnation of an old idea.

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Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from The Mechanical Monarch
  More Ideas and Technology by E.C. Tubb
  Tech news articles related to The Mechanical Monarch
  Tech news articles related to works by E.C. Tubb

Impactor Determines Composition-related news articles:
  - MoonLITE 'Mole' Penetrators For Lunar Exploration
  - Hayabusa-2 Asteroid Cannon Strategy From 1950's SF Novel

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