The first three test firings of small missile-like probes that will allow scientific measurements to be taken from the far side of the Moon have been successfully completed at MOD Pendine in South Wales in May 2008 using the long test track facility which is operated and managed by QinetiQ.
The probes, called penetrators, travelled at 700 miles per hour along 300 metres of the 1,500 metre test track before hitting a sand target that had been constructed to replicate the surface of the moon. The impact generated a g-force of 10,000g – more than a thousand times stronger than a human-being could survive.
The penetrators are being developed for the proposed UK-led MoonLITE mission to the Moon. They will be deployed at high-speed by an orbiting spacecraft and embed instruments into the lunar surface on impact. Once deployed, the scientific instruments will send measurements back to the Earth, revealing the internal structure of the Moon. Penetrators could also be used for studying the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn, and other objects in the solar system.
As part of a consortium led by the UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory, QinetiQ is de-risking the mission using computer models as well as trials at the test and evaluation facilities it operates at Pendine on behalf of the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD). QinetiQ is also responsible for supplying the impact resistant bodies for the penetrators, batteries and other electronic systems.
"The successful trials took place at our long test track at Pendine which is more commonly used to prove new weapons systems and protection measures for British forces deployed on operations," explained Clive Richardson, QinetiQ's Chief Operating Officer for EMEA. "The penetrator engineering concepts also come out of long-standing MOD research programmes on projectiles. By taking innovative capabilities initially developed for defence and translating them for MoonLITE, QinetiQ is playing a key role on a ground-breaking mission that is set to reveal many secrets about unexplored areas of the Moon."
The three penetrators tested at Pendine contained accelerometers, a data acquisition system, a power system and a variety of sensors including a drill mechanism, seismometer and mass spectrometer. The accelerometers recorded data throughout the trial and initial examinations showed that all other sensors survived the impact.
Professor Alan Smith, Director of the Mullard Space Science Laboratory at University College London said: "These were our first trials and they have been enormously successful with all aspects of the electronics functioning correctly during and after the impact. To get everything right first time is really wonderful – a tribute to British technology and innovation."
If the development programme continues to make good progress, the MoonLITE mission could be launched as early as 2013.