A steam-pow­ered probe to ex­plore space for­ever

The Times of India (New Delhi edition) - - TIMES TRENDS - Josh Gab­batiss

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.

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