Trial highlights benefits of a hard landing on Europa

Qinetiq has conducted a trial that shows how a specially shielded communications system could survive a deliberate impact with Jupiter’s moon Europa.

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The Farnborough-based company conducted the test in partnership with Airbus and the UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL), marking the latest step in an on going 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 was conducted at Cambridge University and 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, is said to have 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.”

Previous trials are said to 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, including batteries and transceivers.