January 12, 2019
Scientists Have Built A Steam-Powered Spacecraft That Can Hop Asteroids And Mine Them For Fuel

Meet the World Is Not Enough (WINE) spacecraft, a newly developed asteroid explorer that relies not on fuel, but on steam to get around. The probe uses a steam propulsion system to get off the ground and travel from one location to the next — and all it needs is a little bit of water to keep it going.

This ingenious machine is the product of a wonderful collaboration between the University of Central Florida (UCF) and the Pasadena-based Honeybee Robotics — and could kick-start a new generation of space probes, reports CNET.

The craft is about the size of a microwave oven and was designed to hop from one space rock to another, while also mining the asteroids for water to replenish its "fuel" reserves. Since asteroids, particularly the carbon-rich ones, are a bountiful source of water — which is bound up as hydrated clay minerals in their composition, explains NASA — WINE is fully equipped to carry on exploring without ever running out of fuel.

This means that once launched, the spacecraft could theoretically roam the cosmos "forever," notes Phys.org.

The way that WINE works is by extracting water from asteroids or other planetary bodies, which it uses to generate steam and propel itself to its next mining target, explains a news release from the University of Central Florida. The spacecraft "mines the water from the surface, then makes it into steam to fly to a new location and repeat."

In order to do so, WINE is also fitted with deployable solar panels, which produce the energy needed to mine asteroids and convert water into steam. In addition, the spacecraft could also employ small radioisotopic decay units to broaden its horizon and extend its travel capabilities farther and deeper into the solar system — maybe even to Pluto and beyond.

"The WINE-like spacecrafts have the potential to change how we explore the universe," says Honeybee vice president Kris Zacny.

Funded by NASA's Small Business Technology Transfer program, WINE is the brainchild of UCF planetary research scientist Phil Metzger, whose ground-breaking work in computer modeling resulted in a novel algorithm that helped design the craft's steam propulsion system and verify that it would work off-screen.

Based on Metzger's computer model, Honeybee built the WINE spacecraft and tested it in a vacuum at the end of last year, using simulated asteroid material provided by UCF. The WINE prototype was recently unveiled by Zacny, who shared the demo video on social media.

Commenting on the WINE demonstration, Metzger described the craft's performance as "awesome."

"WINE successfully mined the soil, made rocket propellant, and launched itself on a jet of steam extracted from the simulant," he said in a statement.

"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."
As Metzger explains, the amount of water required by WINE to complete a mission "depends on how much gravity and how far you want to hop."

"It's a reasonable amount in any case," he clarified via Twitter.

Aside from running on steam and refueling itself whenever needed, the WINE space explorer has two bonus advantages, Metzger points out.

"WINE was designed to never run out of propellant, so exploration will be less expensive. 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."