Applications include measuring heat flow in areas on Earth where optimal thermal isolation of heaters/ temperature sensors is of paramount importance.
Heat flow is a fundamental property of a planet, and provides significant constraints on the abundance of radiogenic isotopes, the thermal evolution and differentiation history, and the mechanical properties of the lithosphere. Heat-flow measurements are also essential in achieving at least four of the goals set out by the National Research Council for future lunar exploration. The heat-flow probe therefore directly addresses the goal of the Lunar Geophysical Network, which is to understand the interior structure and composition of the Moon.
A key challenge for heat flow measurement is to install thermal sensors to the depths ≈3 m that are not influenced by the diurnal, annual, and longer-term fluctuations of the surface thermal environment. In addition, once deployed, the heat flow probe should cause little disturbance to the thermal regime of the surrounding regolith.
A heat-flow probe system was developed that has two novel features: (1) it utilizes a pneumatic (gas) approach, excavates a hole by lofting the lunar soil out of the hole, and (2) deploys the heat flow probe, which utilizes a coiled up tape as a thermal probe to reach >3-meter depth.
The system is a game-changer for small lunar landers as it exhibits extremely low mass, volume, and simple deployment. The pneumatic system takes advantage of the helium gas used for pressurizing liquid propellant of the lander. Normally, helium is vented once the lander is on the surface, but it can be utilized for powering pneumatic systems. Should sufficient helium not be available, a simple gas delivery system may be taken specifically for the heat flow probe. Either way, the pneumatic heat flow probe system would be much lighter than other systems that entirely rely on the electrical power of the lander.