Successful first test of high speed 'penetrator'

June 9, 2008

High speed ‘penetrators’ that could one day be used to breach the surface of planets have successfully passed their first test in the UK, accelerating to 700 miles per hour before striking their target. A team led by University College London (UCL) test-fired the projectiles in Wales, recording a peak of 20,000 gee upon impact (where humans can survive up to 10 gee).

Penetrators, which can carry data-collecting systems and sensors, are being developed as an alternative to manned space flight for the future exploration of moons in our solar system.

The team, led by Professor Alan Smith from UCL’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory, the University of Surrey, Birkbeck College, Imperial College, the Open University and QinetiQ ran the first three test firings of the high speed penetrators at QinetiQ’s long test track in Pendine, South Wales in May 2008. The projectiles were secured to a rocket sledge and fired along a rail track.

The penetrators, which contained a data- and sample-collecting system, a variety of sensors, accelerometers, a seismometer and a mass spectrometer (for analysis) hit a sand target at around 700 miles per hour. The electronics remained fully operational during impact, recording the deceleration in minute detail which peaked at about 20,000 gee (20,000 times the acceleration due to gravity, where humans can only survive around 10 gee).

Penetrator technology is being developed for future space exploration, to pierce the surface of planetary bodies such as our moon and the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Penetrators offer a low cost approach to planetary exploration, but the enormous impact forces have meant that scientists have so far been reluctant to trust them.

Professor Smith said: "Prior to this trial, we had to rely on computer modelling and analysis. As far as we can tell the trial has been enormously successful, with all aspects of the electronics working correctly during and after the impact. I congratulate the team on this really impressive achievement – to get everything right first time is wonderful, and a tribute to British technology and innovation."

The impact trial is part of a series of technical developments and studies in preparation for future planetary space missions. These include the proposed UK MoonLITE mission to the Moon which is hoped to be launched in 2013, and possible missions to moons of the outer planets – Europa, Ganymede, Enceladous and Titan. The trials were funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council as part of MSSL’s Rolling Grant.

Source: University of Surrey

Explore further: Air-quality sensors on cars at heart of Aclima-Google partnership

Related Stories

Where is solar power headed?

July 22, 2015

Most experts agree that to have a shot at curbing the worst impacts of climate change, we need to extricate our society from fossil fuels and ramp up our use of renewable energy.

New horizons brings Pluto's mysterious moons into play

July 17, 2015

Drifting along at what for decades was regarded as the outer boundary of our solar system, icy Pluto is far from alone. The dwarf planet has moons – at least five of them – which are all fascinating little worlds in their ...

Recommended for you

Binary star system precisely timed with pulsar's gamma-rays

July 31, 2015

Pulsars are rapidly rotating compact remnants born in the explosions of massive stars. They can be observed through their lighthouse-like beams of radio waves and gamma-rays. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational ...

Image: Hubble sees a dying star's final moments

July 31, 2015

A dying star's final moments are captured in this image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. The death throes of this star may only last mere moments on a cosmological timescale, but this star's demise is still quite ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.