British engineers report successful test of space penetrator

Jul 15, 2013 by Bob Yirka weblog
The Galileo spacecraft took this image of Europa, which is about the size of Earth's moon, in 1996. Credit: NASA.

( —British engineers have told reporters that a test of their space penetrator has been conducted and all signs suggest it was a complete success. The space penetrator is a bullet shaped projectile with electronics inside. Its purpose is to hard-land on another planet or moon, penetrating the surface by up to ten feet, then radio back sensor information.

In the test, the penetrator was fired at a 10 tonne block of ice—it struck the block moving at approximately 340m/s, which is of course nearly the . While the block of ice was reduced to a giant snow-cone, the electronic instruments inside the probe remained intact and in fact, continued to operate as planned, thanks to a spring mechanism engineers crafted to help soften the blow.

The main goal of the penetrator is to determine whether life exists on another planet or moon in our solar system. Currently, the hope is that it will be used on Jupiter's moon Europa, which is believed to be harboring a beneath its icy crust. The penetrator would be carried aboard a more traditional craft then launched into orbit around a target as part of a satellite. At the appropriate time, a penetrator module would be ejected from the satellite. The module would consist of the penetrator and an engine component to propel the module to a desired location. Once that location is reached, the engine would be released and the penetrator would fall head first down to the surface below. Because of its high speed, it would make its way some distance below the surface before stopping.

The researchers report the test penetrator experienced 24,000g as it came to a rest. Once in place, the penetrator would then begin sending via radio messages to the satellite which would relay them back to Earth.

Get Adobe Flash player

Representatives for the project team told the media that the penetrator could host a wide variety of sensors and could even carry a small drill for taking samples near the probe.

The penetrator project is being funded by the European Space Agency, though the agency has yet to decide whether the penetrator will ever actually be deployed. Researchers on the project say it will be ready for launch within a decade's time.

Explore further: Scars on Mars from 2012 rover landing fade—usually

More information: via BBC

Related Stories

Dual Drill Designed for Jupiter’s Europa Ice

Apr 15, 2010

NASA and the European Space Agency are sending a mission to study Jupiter and its moon Europa in 2020. There may be life in the moon’s ocean, but to find out a mission will have to be able to drill down ...

Successful first test of high speed 'penetrator'

Jun 09, 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 ...

MoonLITE mission gets green light for next step

Dec 05, 2008

A possible UK-led Moon mission involving 'penetrator' darts that would impact into the Moon's surface will be the focus of a technical study to ascertain its feasibility, the British National Space Centre (BNSC) announced ...

Chinese spacecraft completes mission

Jun 25, 2013

China's Shenzhou-10 spacecraft has completed a challenging mission to manually dock with a space module and its three astronauts are expected to return to earth on Wednesday, state media said Tuesday.

Hunting for Fossils on Europa

Jun 17, 2010

Jupiter's moon Europa has a salty ocean where life could exist. A thick ice shell separates the ocean from our exploration vehicles, and it’s not known how far down we’d need to drill. But why drill at ...

Recommended for you

Comet dust—planet Mercury's 'invisible paint'

3 hours ago

A team of scientists has a new explanation for the planet Mercury's dark, barely reflective surface. In a paper published in Nature Geoscience, the researchers suggest that a steady dusting of carbon from p ...

It's 'full spin ahead' for NASA soil moisture mapper

6 hours ago

The 20-foot (6-meter) "golden lasso" reflector antenna atop NASA's new Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) observatory is now ready to wrangle up high-resolution global soil moisture data, following the successful ...

What drives the solar cycle?

6 hours ago

You can be thankful that we bask in the glow of a relatively placid star. Currently about halfway along its 10 billion year career on the Main Sequence, our sun fuses hydrogen into helium in a battle against ...

MESSENGER completes 4,000th orbit of Mercury

6 hours ago

On March 25, the MESSENGER spacecraft completed its 4,000th orbit of Mercury, and the lowest point in its orbit continues to move closer to the planet than ever before. The orbital phase of the MESSENGER ...

ESA recovers IXV spaceplane

6 hours ago

ESA's recovered IXV spaceplane arrived at the Port of Livorno in Italy yesterday and is set to be taken to Turin for final analysis.

User comments : 7

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1.7 / 5 (6) Jul 15, 2013
Seriously? "Space Penetrator"? Seriously? I didn't know 10 year olds were proverbial "rocket scientists" (or vice versa)
3 / 5 (4) Jul 15, 2013
"it struck the block moving at approximately 340m/s, which is of course nearly the speed of sound"

Why would it "of course" be the speed of sound? It's possible they tested this in a vaccuum, since the projectile will start from the near vaccuum of space, in which case the speed of sound would be significantly different. Even when the projectile enters Titan's atmosphere, which is denser than ours, the speed of sound will be much different
1 / 5 (7) Jul 15, 2013
Place a small passive plutonium button tip on the penetrator and over the course of years , so long as the penetrator impacts tip down and in tact, it will melt the ice below it and slowly sink through miles of ice to reach the ocean below.
1 / 5 (7) Jul 15, 2013
For good measure make the trailing backside out of plutonium as well that way the liquid melt lubricates the backside as well as it sinks. This will inceease the odds of successful sinking, if not also increase the speed. Maybe make it a double ended design with backend coming to a pointed tip just like the front. Perhaps a bit less pointed (narrow boat tail tapered flat transom end)
not rated yet Jul 16, 2013
Would the plutonium affect the transmissions/readings?
3 / 5 (2) Jul 16, 2013
That type of melting mole probe has been proposed already.

There are several ways to build them, and you'd really need to know specifics about where you're going to deploy it before you can decide on specific design choices. A passive heat source like you describe isn't suited for all circumstances. I also don't think you can neglect to heat the entire outside of your mole, or the ice will re-freeze on the sides and your probe will be stuck. There's probably not much point in just going into the ice, unless you think you can make it all the way through, then do something once you reach the liquid beneath. In summary, to make the trip worth it, you would probably want a much larger and more complex mole than what you describe. This would not be a trivial engineering job.
1 / 5 (6) Jul 16, 2013
You had better hope the surface is in fact ice and not dirt and rocks, like every other moon and planet we have discovered.

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.