Steam spacecraft could exploit asteroids "forever," say scientists


A steam-powered spacecraft was created to one day be able to move from an asteroid to an asteroid, extracting water to fuel its journey.

Scientists say their microwave-sized device could theoretically travel through space "forever," with an infinite supply of fuel to propel their rockets.

The prototype of NASA, called the World Is Not Enough (WINE), was developed by scientists in partnership with a California robotics company.

Planetary researcher Dr. Phil Metzger of the University of Central Florida worked on computer modeling that allowed Honeybee Robotics to create the device.

The spacecraft's first attempts were conducted in the laboratory using simulated asteroid material at the end of December.

"It's incredible," Dr. Metzger said.

"WINE successfully extracted the ground, made a rocket propeller and threw itself into a jet of steam extracted from the simulant.

"We could use this technology to jump on the Moon, Ceres, Europe, Titan, Pluto, the Mercury poles, asteroids – wherever there is water and gravity low enough."

The craft prototype WINE (University of Central Florida)

Kris Zacny, vice president of Honeybee Robotics, said that this new species of spacecraft has "the potential to change the way we explore the universe."

Devices may work in different ways depending on where they are deployed.

Solar panels can be used to provide energy for mining and steam production, which can then be used to propel the vessel from the surface of a planet or asteroid back into space.

Alternatively, if it were operating further away from the Sun – for example, on Pluto – it could make use of radioactive material onboard gradually decaying to provide energy.

Currently missions to other planets need to stop when the spacecraft runs out of propellant, which means the loss of an enormous amount of time and money.

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The WINE project was supported by NASA's small business technology transfer program, which aims to promote links between universities and businesses.

Honeybee Robotics specializes in the creation of space drilling tools as well as systems for finding life on other planets.

The WINE project encompasses the company's Spider Water Extraction System, designed to drill the surface of asteroids and extract samples of dry soil that can be sucked dry.


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