The University of Arizona

A review of penetrometers for subsurface access on comets and asteroids

David L. GLASER, Andrew J. BALL, Kris A. ZACNY


The characterization of comet and asteroid interiors will eventually require in situ exploration with drills, penetrators/penetrometers, hypervelocity impactors, excavators or other devices. Because they offer desirable scientific capabilities and relative mechanical simplicity, penetrators and penetrometers, which use only axial force to push beneath the surface, are a good choice for near-term missions. Penetrometers are instruments, generally deployed from a larger vehicle, that measure subsurface mechanical properties and may also contain additional scientific instruments. There are three basic types: "fast" penetrometers are released from above and plunge into the surface. Static and dynamic (collectively referred to as "slow") penetrometers use, respectively, a constant slow penetration speed and periodic hammering impulses. The low gravity environment of asteroids and comets presents a key challenge to instrument deployment and also greatly affects the mechanical properties of surface materials, and in turn penetrometer performance. The Rosetta mission, currently en route to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, will be the next mission to try both fast and slow, dynamic penetrometry, when it arrives in 2014. We present some new concepts of static penetrometers for small body exploration that are adapted to the low gravity environment. The low gravity environment also presents challenges for the testing of penetrometers on Earth and a number of previous solutions are described and new methods suggested. In the next generation of missions to study comets and asteroids, penetrometers could provide important data on their mechanical, seismic, thermal, electromagnetic, and chemical characteristics, as well as sample collection.


penetrometry;comet interiors;asteroid interiors;subsurface access

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