Exploring asteroids and moons
The age of steam is back – but this time it’s for spaceships. A team of engineers and scientists in the US has unveiled a prototype of a spacecraft that could use steam power to explore asteroids and moons, looking for water, minerals and even life.Called WINE (World Is Not Enough), the spacecraft would mine water straight from the places it visited and turn it into steam.
It was developed by Honeybee Robotics, a robotics research and development company in California, alongside planetary physicist Dr Phil Metzger, a former NASA scientist now at the University of Central Florida’s planetary science faculty, with input from NASA itself.
Steam powered exploration
WINE would work by drilling into the ground for water, heating the water so it becomes steam, and drawing it up into a cold container where it is frozen.As it got ready to take off, WINE would use solar or nuclear energy to heat the water, turning it back into steam, and pushing it into a propellant tank at its centre. The high-pressure steam would then be released through a nozzle, powering the spacecraft to its next destination.
WINE’s mining and propulsion system was successfully tested here on Earth in January. The tests indicated that WINE could create enough force to move between asteroids using water mined from model asteroid material.
Steam has significant advantages: it’s tried and tested over centuries, simple, environmentally friendly and renewable. In theory, as long as WINE has access to solar or nuclear power and water, it could explore indefinitely.Dr Metzger said: “We want to use resources that are available. We have to go appropriate tech, not high tech.”
A new way to make discoveries
The spacecraft has legs, so it can move to drill in or explore different places on the same moon or asteroid, but the steam thrust only gives it enough power to take flight, and move between asteroids, when the asteroid it is leaving has very low gravity.
Metzger told the website www.astronomy.com that it would be able to escape a world about the size of Uranus’ moon Puck, which is 100 miles in diameter – and the vast majority of asteroids are far smaller. However, although it would be able to propel itself for several kilometres at a time over a larger moon like Europa, the smallest of Jupiter’s four Galilean moons, or Ceres, a dwarf planet in the asteroid belt, it wouldn’t, as it stands, have the power to escape those larger moons and planets.
WINE would also need to ride to moons and asteroids on a lander capable of doing a soft landing, and could either carry its own instruments, or collect samples and return them to the lander for analysis by more sophisticated instruments.By not needing to carry a full mission’s worth of fuel all the way from Earth, it could reduce the cost of space exploration.
“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,” Dr Metzger added. If your company is involved in scientific, technological or engineering research, you could be eligible for research and development tax credits. At R&D Tax Solutions, we specialise in helping companies make successful claims. View our research and development tax relief examples and r&d tax credits calculator to see how much you could reclaim and call us at our Manchester office to see how we can help.