The planetary penetrators tested last month have performed well according to ESA

ESA's futuristic planetary probes ready for the next stage

The European Space Agency (ESA) has released first results of the penetrator technology designed to collect samples from below the ground of other planets. 

The series of tests performed last month by Astrium and QinetiQ and coordinated by ESA's Future Missions Preparation Office has shown the innovative impactors are capable of withstanding extreme g-loads after crashing at the speed of hundreds of kilometres into a barrier made of ice or sand. 

Smashing the ice into pieces, the penetrators survived the impact intact, though slightly damaged. Over the next few weeks, the team will study the effects of the impact on the internal structure of the penetrators and will try to design battery and communication systems capable of withstanding the extreme loads.

During the tests, the 20kg penetrators, powered by 12 solid-propellant boosters, impacted the barrier at the speed of 341m/s. While decelerating upon the impact, the spacecraft were experiencing up to 24,000g – 6,000 times more than astronauts during a lift-off.

Unlike conventional rovers and probes that usually aim at landing as softly as possible in order not to damage their equipment, the penetrators are designed to perform a rather hard touch down.

Approaching the surface at a nearly super-sonic speed, the mini spacecraft fitted with a suite of instruments bury themselves into the ground during landing, collecting samples from underground layers without the need for additional drilling or digging technology.

The tests, performed at a rocket test facility in Wales, UK, have shown the currently refined design is solid enough to slam into a barrier made of ice or sand and survive the impact. These materials were chosen as they resemble the conditions such penetrators could encounter at two most probable destinations – Mars and Jupiter's moon Europa, two celestial bodies most likely to host alien life.

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