A SPACECRAFT THAT WILL NEVER LOSE STEAM
A STEAM powered spacecraft that could roam the sky ‘forever’ is being developed by researchers in Florida.
Called ‘the World Is Not Enough’(WINE), the NASAfunded prototype craft extracts water from asteroids or other planetary bodies to generate steam. It then uses this to drive a rocket thruster and propel itself.
Researchers say it could be used to ‘hop’ across asteroids and planets.
“We could potentially use this technology to hop on the Moon, Ceres, Europa, Titan, Pluto, the poles of Mercury, asteroids — anywhere there is water and sufficiently low gravity,” said University of Central Florida planetary research scientist Phil Metzger.
The scientist worked with Honeybee Robotics of Pasadena, California, which developed the WINE spacecraft prototype. The spacecraft lifted off for about a meter inside a vacuum chamber at Honeybee's Pasadena facility. “It’s awesome,” Metzger says of the demonstration.
“WINE successfully mined the soil, made rocket propellant and launched itself on a jet of steam extracted from the simulant. The process works in a variety of scenarios depending on the gravity of each object,” Metzger says.
The spacecraft uses deployable solar panels to get enough energy for mining and making steam, or it could use small radiosotopic decay units to extend the potential reach of these planetary hoppers to Pluto and other locations far from the sun.
Currently, interplanetary missions stop exploring once the spacecraft runs out of propellant. “Each time we lose our tremendous investment in time and money that we spent building and sending the spacecraft to its target,” Metzger says.
“WINE was designed to never run out of propellant so exploration will be less expensive. It also allows us to explore in a shorter amount of time, since we don’t have to wait for years as a new spacecraft travels from Earth each time.”
The project is a result of the NASA Small Business Technology Transfer programme, which encourages universities to partner with tech companies. “The WINE-like spacecrafts have the potential to change how we explore the universe,” says Kris Zacny, vice-president of Honeybee Robotics.
The team is now seeking partners to continue developing small spacecraft.
A prototype of ‘the World Is Not Enough’ the NASAbacked spacecraft that uses steam for fuel.