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
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.