A steam-powered probe to explore space forever
Asteam-powered spacecraft has been created that could one day propel itself from asteroid to asteroid, extracting water as it goes to fuel its voyage.
Scientists say their microwave-sized device could theoretically travel through space “forever”, relying on an endless supply of fuel to propel its rockets. The Nasa-funded prototype craft called the World Is Not Enough (WINE) has been developed by scientists in partnership with a Californian robotics company.
Planetary researcher Phil Metzger from the University of Central Florida worked on the computer modelling that allowed Honeybee Robotics to create the device. The first trials of the craft were conducted in the lab using simulated asteroid material at the end of December. “It’s awesome,” Metzger said. “WINE successfully mi- ned the soil, made rocket propellant, and launched itself on a jet of steam extracted from the simulant. 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.”
Kris Zacny, vice president of Honeybee Robotics, said this new breed of spacecraft has “the potential to change how we explore the universe”. The devices can work in different ways depending on where they are deployed.
Solar panels can be used to provide the energy for mining and making steam, which can then be used to propel the craft from the surface of a planet or asteroid back into space. Alternatively, if it was operating further away from the Sun — for example on Pluto — it could make use of radioactive material on board gradually decaying to provide energy.