A SPACE­CRAFT THAT WILL NEVER LOSE STEAM

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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.

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