Application of Penetrators within the Solar System
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Application of Penetrators within the Solar System Alan Smith, Rob Gowen AOGS, August, 2009 Mullard Space Science Laboratory, University College London, UK Detachable Propulsion Stage Point of Separation Payload Instruments PDS (Penetrator Delivery System) Penetrator Penetrators

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Application of Penetrators within the Solar System

Alan Smith, Rob Gowen

AOGS, August, 2009

Mullard Space Science Laboratory, University College London, UK

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Detachable Propulsion Stage

Point of Separation


PDS (Penetrator Delivery System)



  • Low mass projectiles

  • High impact speed ~ up to 400 ms-1

  • Very tough ~10-50kgee

  • Penetrate surface and imbed therein

  • Undertake science-based measurements

  • Transmit results

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Typical Penetrator delivery


Release from Orbiter

Spin-up & Decelerate


Penetrator Separation

Penetrator & PDS surface Impact

Delivery sequence courtesy SSTL

Operate from below surface

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Why penetrators ?


  • Simpler architecture

  • Low mass

  • Low cost

  • Explore multiple sites

  • Natural redundancy

  • Direct contact with sub-regolith (drill, sampling)

  • Protected from environment (wind, radiation)


  • Low mass limits payload options

  • Impact survival limits payload option

  • Limited lifetime

  • Limited telemetry capacity

Complementary to Soft Landers for in situ studies

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Penetrator Payload Instruments

  • Accelerometers– Probe surface/sub-surface material (hardness/composition)

  • Seismometers- Probe interior (e.g. Regolith thickness, interior structure, existence/size of water reservoirs, ...) and seismic activity of bodies (location of ‘quake sites, intensity and frequency)

  • Mass Spectrometers– Determine elemental composition of surface material

  • Chemical sensors– Examine/identify refractory/volatiles (including water ice) with possible astrobiologic significance

  • Thermal sensors- Heat flow, subsurface temperatures and thermal conductivity.

  • Plus:

    Magnetometer, Neutron spectrometer, XRS, gamma ray spectrometer, alpha-proton spectrometer, sample camera, beeping transmitter, radiation monitor

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Key Enabling Technologies

  • Penetrator Descent Modules– De-orbit, attitude control to give a few km accuracy landing ellipse.

  • Penetrator Power sub-system– Lithium batteries (baseline), RTGs, fuel cells

  • Penetrator Communications – Penetrator – Orbiter comms, UHF, low power

  • Penetrator Architecture / Infrastructure– Modularity, Integration, central processor and controller, robust clock

  • Penetrator Thermal Control- Insulation and thermal design, RHUs.

  • Penetrator Sample Acquisition – Drill, impact scoop, sample handling

  • Descent Camera – Impact site context, requires despin and comms link

  • Penetrator – PDM integration – Shared resources, separation

  • PDM – Spacecraft release – spin up on release?

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Military Heritage in instrumented impact projectiles

Numerous laboratories looking at high velocity impacts with gas guns


1996: Mars96 (Russia/Lavochkin), 2 off, 60-80 ms-1 impact, each 65kg incl braking system. Lost when Mars96 failed to leave Earth orbit.

1999: Deep Space-2 (NASA/JPL), 2 off, 140-210ms-1 impact, each 3.6kg with entry shell. Failed, cause unknown.

Lunar – A (Japan/JAXA), 2 off, 285 ms-1 impact, each 45kg including de-orbit and attitude control. Programme terminated before launch after extensive development and trials

Lunar Glob (Russia/Lavochkin), status unclear but may include Lunar-A penetrators

2008: UK Penetrator Pendine Trials, 3 off, 300 ms-1 impact into compacted sand, each 13kg, demonstrated survivability of a range of key technologies in preparation for MoonLITE

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Lunar Glob (Russia)

UK/NASA agreed to full Phase A

Kick-off postponed until April ‘10

Penetrators (2018) now being considered as an option in light of likely ExoMars rethink. Some UK Aurora money now funding key instrument developments

Mars Aurora (ESA)

Penetrator under consideration in ESA assessment study. ESA contract ITT for system level study


UK preparing input to NASA AO


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Galileo spacecraft image (NASA/JPL)


  • Largest Moon of Jupiter

  • Magnetosphere

  • Water/rock surface & interior

  • Possible astrobiology


A sharp boundary divides the dark Nicholson Regio from the bright Harpagia Sulcus

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Basic parameters

  • mass : 0.7 Moon

  • surface gravity : 0.8 Moon

  • radius : 0.9 Moon

  • surface temp : 40-120K

  • surface radiation : Mrads

  • near surface ocean?

  • potential for life?


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From Proctor (JHU), Patterson (APL) & Senske (JPL) (2009, Europa Lander Workshop, Moscow)

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Δ developments required for Europa…(beyond MoonLITE)

  • Impact (hard,rough)

  • Radiation

  • Planetary protection

  • Transmission

  • Long cruise phase

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Penetrator Consortium

March 2008 – UK only

  • Institutes: ~ 9 UK

  • Members: ~30

    July 2009 – UK & European additions

  • Institutes: ~16 UK EU (Belgium, Germany, Italy, Austria, Spain)

  • Members: ~64 UK(50) + EU(14)

Plus interest from various US institutes

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Previous Development Status – last March

  • QinetiQ responsible for :

    • penetrator outer fabrication

    • Accelerometer and batteries

    • Running the trial

  • MSSL responsible for inner compartments fabrication :-

    • inner compartments all machined.

    • MSSL electronics mostly fabricated & undergoing testing

    • Other payload providers participating.

  • Trial was in 6 weeks time at Pendine.

Full-scale structure impact trial – Scheduled May 19-23 2008

5 inner compartments within each penetrator

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Impact Trial - Configuration

Rocket sled


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Impact trial – Payload



Radiation sensor








Accelerometers, Thermometer

Batteries,Data logger

Drill assembly

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MSSL accelerometer data

11 kgee

Peak gee forces in rear of penetrator

Along axis


Main impact


15 kgee

Vertical axis

4 kgee

Horizontal axis

Along axis:

Cutter: 3kgee

Main: 10kgee

Girder: 1kgee

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Survival Table

No critical failures

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[email protected]

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  • Spacecraft:Lunar polar orbit, altitude ~100km, <40km for penetrator release.Potential ILN comms link

  • Payload:4 descent modules, each to implant a ~13Kg penetratorat 300m/s into lunar surface

  • Landing sites:Globally spaced - far side, polar regions, near side

  • Launch & Duration: Planned for 2014&1 year operations

  • Objectives:

    • network seismology

    • polar water and volatiles

    • ISRU (water/radiation/quakes)


Far side