Sept. 24 - Scientists curious about possible life on Europa, one of Jupiter's moons, are developing a capsule that can be fired at high speed into the moon's surface to dislodge and collect samples. Astrium, a subsidiary of aerospace giant EADS, could be involved in a proposed European Space Agency (ESA) mission to Europa within the decade, and has been test-firing its planet penetrating rockets to prepare. Jim Drury reports.
UPSOT: BLAST Travelling at about the speed of sound, Astrium's surface penetrator made short work of this ten ton block of ice. The aerospace group is heading a pan-European bid to fire a rocket three feet into Europa's crust, to produce samples for analysis. The ice replicates Europa, one of Jupiter's moons, which Astrium's future programs head Marie-Claire Perkinson says offers tantalising signs of possible life. SOUNDBITE (English) MARIE-CLAIRE PERKINSON, HEAD OF FUTURE PROGRAMS GROUP AT ASTRIUM, SAYING: "So our main target here is Europa. We're very interested in going there. It's one of the areas where we have a high probability of there being conditions for life. So that's the key objective, but we also think it could be a really interesting mission for Mars." Twelve rockets fired the 20 kilogram penetrator along a 300 metre sled track at the British defence ministry's test range in Wales. Within a second and a half it was travelling at 762 miles before hour before shattering the ice in a concrete bunker, denting the penetrator's shell. Astrium's head of research and development Jaime Reed said the test results were a surprise. SOUNDBITE) (English) JAIME (PRON: JAMIE) REED, HEAD OF R&D IN UK FOR ASTRIUM, SAYING: "Nobody's done this beforehand we didn't really know what was going to happen. It's clear that the penetrator hit the material, hit the ice in particular and caused it to vaporise, shatter apart and form a huge cloud of ice particles. Then when the penetrator was inside the ice it actually moved around, much more than we anticipated." The penetrator consists of a steel shell containing spring-mounted aluminium instrument bays, insulated from the heat by a vacuum-filled chamber. Reed hopes to replicate the experiment on Europa. SOUNDBITE (English) JAIME (PRON: JAMIE) REED, HEAD OF R&D IN UK FOR ASTRIUM, SAYING: "When the penetrator has landed in the crust of Europa, it will have a number of sensors and instruments that will make measurements and one of those for example is a drill that will actually burrow through the side of the penetrator, take samples, bring the material back into the penetrator for analysis. Then that data will be sent from the penetrator all the way back to an orbiter , which will be orbiting Jupiter, and from that orbiter back to Earth for analysis by scientists." At minus 200 degrees Celcius, the ice on Europa is thought to be about half as hard as solid concrete. A second successful test was fired into sand, to mimic the surface of Mars. Again the penetrator and its contents survived, its sand blast damage a record of its mission. The European Space Agency is planning a billion-euro mission to Jupiter and its icy moons in 2022. Called 'Juice', the mission plans to reach the Jovian system by 2030. Whether Astrium gets to put its penetrator to the test during that, or a subsequent mission, is still to be determined.