The steel penetrator was recently tested by firing it at a 10 ton block of ice meant to mimic the surface of Europa and not only did it go through it, but it also remained intact. But that’s not the most awesome part. While admittedly any chance of meeting the terrain of Jupiter’s moon up close will require an association with the British Government when such a time comes, in the meantime this is a cilvilian project.
The technical capabilities and experimentation and settling on certain materials can all be traced back to the years of service to the Ministry of Defense that underpins it all. The company is QinetiQ. A defense company, QinetiQ operates a long rocket track in West Wales where it was able to test the projectile. Normally this track is for the testing of a missile prior to its being offered for service in the military.
This new explorer did not simply appear overnight as it has been in development for nearly ten years. Originally it began as the ‘space penetrator’ with a lunar mission referred to as Moonlite. When that mission was scrubbed in favor of an actual lander, the idea wouldn’t just go away.
Known as the penetrator, perhaps it is a little misleading as the object does not completely penetrate its target. What it does is go approximately 3 meters down into the ice; pretty cool if you realize that all this would be occurring 417,000 (give-or-take) miles away. 3 meters is important because any life that is likely to be on Europa will be hidden away from the surface and the lethal radiation that exists there. The benefits of this system are very obvious when compared to ‘soft’ landers. A soft lander has to slow down in order to reach the surface safely but an item designed to slam into the surface and keep going has my advantages.
At present the ESA has a spacecraft called Juice who will be visiting Europa in the next decade, but there is no space aboard it for this technology. However scientists can envision a troop of penetrators, all deployed at once and then when it came to their arrival, being separated out in order to cover a rather large territory. Each would have network sensors, a drill, and various scientific tools within them.
What is next for this Space penetrator system? Work will concentrate on communications and also battery systems as both will be important to the successful completion of its mission – whatever the specifics may be. A flight ready system is ball-parked for ten years.