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: New nano devices could withstand extreme environments of space

Related Stories

Florida eco-friendly town opens for business

March 22, 2017

With a farm-to-table restaurant, driverless shuttles, homes built with the latest green techniques and a massive solar farm to offset energy use, Florida's first sustainable town is now open for business.

Chemical reactions 'filmed' at the single-molecule level

March 22, 2017

Scientists have succeeded in 'filming' inter-molecular chemical reactions – using the electron beam of a transmission electron microscope (TEM) as a stop-frame imaging tool. They have also discovered that the electron beam ...

Gearing up to track space debris

March 13, 2017

Space is filling up with junk. "It's not like there's a storm of metal and if you venture into space you're going to get clobbered," says Professor Russell Boyce, Chair of Space Engineering at UNSW Canberra. "But the risk ...

Recommended for you

Stars born in winds from supermassive black holes

March 27, 2017

Observations using ESO's Very Large Telescope have revealed stars forming within powerful outflows of material blasted out from supermassive black holes at the cores of galaxies. These are the first confirmed observations ...

Supersonic plasma jets discovered

March 27, 2017

Information from ESA's magnetic field Swarm mission has led to the discovery of supersonic plasma jets high up in our atmosphere that can push temperatures up to almost 10 000°C.

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.