Scientists have designed a steam-propelled spacecraft, which - they believe - can hop from one asteroid to another, without running out of fuel. According to the research team, the spacecraft would mine space rocks for water and use that water for steam propulsion.
A variety of space probes sent by NASA and other space agencies have revealed presence of water - at least in the form of ice - on several bodies. Wherever there is a deep crack or crater on a planet or a moon, there is possibility of a frozen water deposit within it. And some planetary scientists believe such deposits can be used as a readily available fuel to travel in space.
The University of Central Florida (UCF) planetary research scientist Phil Metzger has worked in collaboration with private space firm Honeybee Robotics of California to develop a steam-powered spacecraft, which theoretically never runs out of fuel and can fly forever in space.
The designers of the steam-powered spacecraft have named it the World Is Not Enough (WINE) experiment.
Honeybee Robotics has developed a prototype of WINE spacecraft, which was tested in company's facility on 31st December.
The simulated asteroid material for the experiment was provided by the UCF, while Metzger performed the computer modelling and simulation necessary for the experiment.
"It's awesome," Metzger says of prototype testing.
"WINE successfully mined the soil, made rocket propellant, and launched itself on a jet of steam extracted from the simulant."
Metzger also believes that this technology could be used anywhere there is water and low gravity, such as places like the Moon, Pluto, asteroids, the pole of Mercury, and Jupiter's moon Europa.
WINE is about the size of a microwave oven. It is capable of extracting water from the surface and can easily convert it into steam. As long as there is water on an asteroid (or any other body in space), WINE never runs out of fuel and can theoretically fly "forever."
The spacecraft also features deployable solar panels, which help it generate power for mining and to make steam from water. Metzger says it could also use small radiosotopic decay units to travel in deep space and reach locations much far away from the Sun.
The WINE project is part of NASA's Small Business Innovation Research programme.
"The project has been a collaborative effort between NASA, academia and industry; and it has been a tremendous success," says Kris Zacny, vice president of Honeybee Robotics.
"The WINE-like spacecraft have the potential to change how we explore the universe," he added.
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