NASA-funded craft can ex­plore plan­ets for­ever

Steam-pow­ered space probe mines own fuel any­where there is wa­ter and low grav­ity, can re­peat process in­def­i­nitely

Sunday Express - - XPLORE -

WASH­ING­TON: Amer­i­can sci­en­tists have de­vel­oped an ex­plorer-space­craft that can mine wa­ter from the sur­faces of plan­e­tary bod­ies with­out the need for hu­man con­trol, and can do so re­peat­edly for­ever.

The new tech­nol­ogy can re­duce the im­mense amount of money that coun­tries spend on space probes and paves the way for the de­vel­op­ment of more au­tonomous, self-re­plen­ish­ing ro­bot ex­plor­ers.

The mi­crowave oven-sized pro­to­type, named World Is Not Enough or WINE, was tested on De­cem­ber 31. 2018 in the of­fices of Honey­bee Robotics, with the help of Uni­ver­sity of Cen­tral Florida’s Phil Met­zger, a plan­e­tary re­search sci­en­tist.

“WINE suc­cess­fully mined the soil, made rocket pro­pel­lant, and launched it­self on a jet of steam ex­tracted from the sim­u­lant,” Met­zger said.

“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.”

WINE con­verts the wa­ter mined from sur­faces into steam to move it­self to dif­fer­ent loca- tions, which means that it may never run out of fuel and can ex­plore for­ever, the uni­ver­sity said in a re­lease.

For the wa­ter min­ing process, the space­craft uses power from so­lar-charged bat­ter­ies. When so­lar power is not avail­able, 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,” the re­lease said.

To­day’s space probes go dark when they run out of fuel. “Each time we lose our tremen­dous in­vest­ment in time and money that we spent build­ing and send­ing the space­craft to its tar­get,” Met­zger said.

“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,” he added. This vari­ant of the steam-propul­sion tech­nol­ogy of the NASA-funded space­craft took three years to be de­vel­oped by Met­zger.

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