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ESA funding a space penetrator, a science missile to bombard planets and moons

We can land men on the Moon, land rovers on Mars, and send probes off to the farthest reaches of the Solar System. Unfortunately, everything is very expensive, and we generally can’t land multiple robots on distant celestial bodies, much less a single one. However, with the UK’s space penetrator, we could inexpensively bombard a planet with sensors and instruments.
The amusingly named space penetrator isn’t an entirely accurate name, as the vehicle is more of a celestial body penetrator. Acting as something of a science missile, it is fired off at a target and slams into the surface upon arrival — a convenient way to deliver a payload of sensors and instruments. Classified as a “hard lander” (and again with the amusing choice of words) the space penetrator has been in development for over 10 years, and offers a few advantages over the standard soft lander. A soft lander not only has to slow down before landing, but has to be built to land rather than just crash into the ground. After landing, if any kind of subsurface samples or readings must be taken, the payload then has to drill into the surface. The penetrator can just smash through stuff.
As expected, crashing a science missile into a planet brings a host of issues, such as ensuring that the payload survives impact. As the name implies, a soft lander lands softly, so the landing will inherently be easier on the payload. Something that smashes into terrain, on the other hand, would be tough on the payload. So, to protect it, a specially designed spring mechanism isolates the payload contained within the outer shell, protecting it from impact. The suspension system is made out of Torlon polymer, which is able to provide a 2mm gap of insulation during a high deceleration. A retrorocket will be employed in order to soften the blow a bit as well. Would blasting a casing across space and into the terrain of a planet really work, though?
Currently, the system isn’t designed to be shot from Earth directly to a target, but launched from a satellite or ship. In order to test the impact, the steel missile-like penetrator was fired directly into a 10-ton block of ice. The block was blasted into powder, but the penetrator’s casing, along with the instruments inside, remained intact and functional. The missile traveled at 340m/s, just under the speed of sound. Thanks to onboard sensors, the test impact will provide the developers of the missile, Rapid Space Technologies, with more information than simply how to destroy a block of ice.
Rather than just collecting soil samples thanks to a little on-board drill, the penetrator will also help look for alien life by way of busting through icy surfaces, such as on Jupiter’s famous moon Europa. We can’t exactly land a submarine there yet, but we could, perhaps, shoot a missile into the moon that can break into the suspected ocean below the surface. With the help of radio signals, the on-board sensors could send information up to an orbiting satellite, which could in turn relay that information back to Earth.
The European Space Agency has funded the project, but has not yet decided if it would ultimately use the space penetrator. Whether or not the penetrator ends up an important tool in space exploration, we can at least thank it for being something we can classify as a science missile, as well as thank it for all the puns.
Space penetrator
Nipun Tyagi. Powered by Blogger.