09 Jun 2008

Targeting the Moon and beyond



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 300 metres per second (700 miles per hour) before striking their target.

A team of space scientists and engineers, including Drs Andrew Ball, Simon Sheridan and Axel Hagermann from The Open University’s Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute (PSSRI), test-fired the projectiles in Wales, recording a peak of 20,000 gee during impact (where humans can survive up to 10 gee).

Penetrators, which can carry data-collecting systems and sensors, are being developed as part of the ‘robotic toolkit’ for the future exploration of moons in our solar system.

The penetrator, developed by the UK Penetrator Consortium, was a successful validation of its structural design and elements of its electrical architecture, and produced important results on the g-load environment and its effects on key technologies. These included a number of components for geochemical instrumentation.

PSSRI's Simon Sheridan said: “It's very encouraging that our high-g mass spectrometer design survived the impact test. I’m now confident that penetrators are a real and practical method of deploying mass spectrometer devices into planetary surfaces.”

Also of interest was the examination of the effects of impact on the target material, which have implications for the design of sampling techniques. Dr Ball added: "It was great to witness these successful tests, and we now have a good basis to proceed with development of prototypes."

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, Enceladus and Titan. The trials were funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council as part of the Mullard Space Science Laboratory’s Rolling Grant.

The UK penetrator consortium is a grouping of British universities (UCL/MSSL, Birkbeck College, Imperial College, Leicester University, The Open University, and University of Surrey) and UK industry (EADS Astrium, QinetiQ and Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd).

As part of CEPSAR's initiatives in lunar science, PSSRI members are planning experiments to examine volatiles (e.g. water ice), heat flow and mechanical properties at the lunar surface.

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