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.

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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.

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More information: via BBC

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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.