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Latest impact trial gives ‘Space Penetrator’ concept new boost


A trial conducted by space, weapons and maritime experts at QinetiQ has shown that a specially shielded communications system could survive a deliberate impact with Jupiter’s moon Europa.

The test, conducted by QinetiQ in partnership with Airbus and the UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL), is the latest in an ongoing programme supported by the European Space Agency (ESA) to demonstrate the concept of a ‘hard landing’ on the surface of a moon or planet. A hard lander, instead of attempting a gentle touchdown, impacts at speeds of up to 300 metres per second, penetrating the surface to collect data from several metres below.

The trial, conducted at Cambridge University, consisted of a small-scale reverse ballistic test, in which a target representing an ice block was accelerated towards QinetiQ’s bullet-shaped ‘penetrator’ using a single stage gas gun. QinetiQ’s communications equipment, concealed within the penetrator, remained fully operational after the test, despite having been subjected to peak loads of up to 35,000 times the force of gravity.

Phillip Church, Principal Engineer, QinetiQ, said: “The Space Penetrator is a landmark British innovation, marking a big change in the way we think about placing spacecraft on other worlds. Soft landings are notoriously difficult to achieve and require large masses to be put into space, making them expensive endeavours. A hard lander enables lighter and more compact designs, and can collect data from underground in previously inaccessible areas.

“The challenge for hard landers is one of survivability; we need to show that vital components can operate effectively after the violent impact. QinetiQ is uniquely qualified to address this challenge, bringing together expertise in specialisms as diverse as ballistics testing, impact simulation, batteries, and space communications systems to prove the concept. QinetiQ is now involved in several opportunities featuring penetrator designs and is developing its reputation as the ‘go-to’ provider for impact and simulation expertise.”

Previous trials have used accelerometers and data loggers to examine the performance of the protective casing, but recent tests have proven the survivability of real components manufactured by QinetiQ, such as batteries and transceivers.

The former trials involved colliding the penetrator with an ice block at 340 metres per second using the Long Test Track at MOD Pendine, managed by QinetiQ on behalf of the Ministry of Defence (MOD). The trial was reported by the BBC in 2013.

Notes for Editors:

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