Page last updated at 16:07 GMT, Friday, 6 June 2008 17:07 UK

Missile practice for Moon mission

By Judith Burns
BBC News


Penetrator missiles were fired into a wall of sand at 1,100km/h (700mph)

Tests on a UK-led technology at the heart of a planned Moon mission have been a spectacular success, according to the experts involved in the project.

Three penetrator missiles were fired into a sand bunker in Wales, designed to mimic the lunar surface.

Professor Alan Smith, of the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, told BBC News the results had exceeded expectations.

He is a leading figure in the Moonlite mission, which hopes to fire instruments into the Moon in 2013.

A BBC team witnessed the final day of the tests at the Ministry of Defence (MoD) test site at Pendine, near Tenby.

The site has been open since 1940 but is now operated by Qinetiq, the privatised MoD spin-off company which developed the penetrator technology.

Three projectiles were tested on three consecutive days at the end of May.

They look like missiles but, rather than exploding on impact, they are designed to stay intact to protect the scientific instruments inside.


An animation of the penetrator missile hitting the lunar surface

The Moonlite mission plans to fire four penetrators into the lunar surface from an orbiting spacecraft. They will come to rest three metres (10ft) underground.

The onboard instruments will send back a mass of information, everything from seismic activity and mineral composition to the underground temperature.

Sand blasted

Security at Pendine was tight - we had to show passports to gain entry. The high-speed test track is set in a large area of sand dunes paradoxically full of birds and flowers.

Professor Alan Smith explains how the penetrator missiles are tested

It's a hard hat site; during the firing itself, all staff must take cover. We were actually confined to the control centre.

Earlier, we saw scientists loading instruments into the third and final penetrator to be tested.

The purpose of the test firings was to check how well the penetrators would withstand being slammed into several tonnes of sand at 1,100km/h (700mph) and whether the instruments inside would survive.

The difference between the penetrators that had already been fired and the one that had yet to be tested was striking.

The blue paint on the fired ones was scraped off and the steel nose cones were distorted.

But despite their battered appearance, Peter Truss of Qinetiq confirmed that they had done their job and protected the instruments inside: "our confidence is growing with every test".

Qinetiq not only contributed to the missile derived design of the penetrators themselves, but to the batteries and communication systems they will carry.

Ultimately, the plan will be to apply this technology to other rocky planets and moons in the Solar System, particularly to Jupiter's icy moon Europa, which may have an ocean below its frozen surface.

Other candidates include Saturn's moons Titan and Enceladus.

Deep space

Until now, missions have only been able to scrape the surface of other planets.

"We're developing the technologies now to enable a much more in-depth analysis of these planetary bodies and with the increase in technology that we can apply to these problems, all sorts of possibilities open up," explained Peter Truss.

Graphic of a penetrator missile (Image: MSSL/UCL)

The other advantage of penetrators is that it's easier to fire into a rocky planet than to land gently on the surface.

Loading and safety checks complete, the penetrator was driven out to the test track. This stretches 1,500m through the sand dunes but the penetrator and its rockets were strapped to a firing sled 300m from the target.

We retired to the control room and looked on as scientists waited anxiously for the final countdown. When it came, the firing shattered the quiet with a reverberating bang. There were cheers from the scientists at the completion of the last test.

Then it was time to break cover and head down to the sand bunker with a metal detector and some shovels to locate the penetrator and dig it out. Researchers measured how far it had pushed into the sand and collected samples.

In each test, the penetrators described a curved trajectory upwards through the sand, ending up only slightly below the surface.

Intruigingly, they also turned the sand they touched black, possibly as a result of its high coal content reacting to the heat.

Speaking later, back at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, Professor Smith said Nasa and the European Space Agency were showing interest.

"The results have been spectacular and the space agencies are sitting up and taking notice," he said.

"Before now it had all been on paper. Now we have real hardware to show them."

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