Steam spacecraft could explore asteroid belt forever and refuel in space


The era of renewed space exploration has led to some rather ambitious proposals. While many have been on the books for decades, it is only in recent years that some of these plans have become technologically feasible. A good example is asteroid mining, where robotic spacecraft would travel to near-Earth asteroids and the main asteroid belt to harvest minerals and other resources.

One of the biggest challenges right now is how these craft could move and refuel once in space. To solve this problem, New York-based company Honeybee Robotics has teamed up with the University of Central Florida (UFC) to develop a robotic steam-powered spacecraft. The company recently released a demo video that shows its World is Not Enough (WINE) ‘steam hopper’ prototype in action.

Founded in 1983, Honeybee Robotics has a long history of developing technology for space exploration. During this period, they completed more than 300 contracts for NASA, which included tools used by the Spirit, Opportunity and Curiousity rovers and Phoenix lander. Addressing the prospect of asteroid mining, the company has teamed up with UCF scientist Dr Phil Metzger to develop a robotic spacecraft for the purpose of operating commercial mining.

In addition to being associated with UCF’s Planetary Science Group (PSG), Dr Metzger has a long history of working with NASA. In fact, Metzger co-founded the Swamp Works at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, which is modeled on Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works and designed to implement innovation strategies adapted from Silicon Valley.

At PSG, Metzger continues to develop what he calls “planetary economics,” which focuses on developing technologies for in situ resource use (ISRU) – ranging from mining and manufacturing to construction. Much like the development of reusable spacecraft, ISRU aims to make space exploration more profitable by leveraging locally harvested resources.

This is the principle of the WINE spacecraft, which would collect water ice from asteroids or planetary regolith. This ice would then be captured in a cold trap and heated to create steam for propulsion. Electrical energy would be provided by solar panels, or possibly by a light radioscopic heating unit.

These power supply choices would allow mission flexibility by giving the robotic spacecraft the ability to work in different environments. For example, if the hopper was operated in low gravity environments closer to the house, solar panels would suffice. If it was operating in high gravity environments and / or in locations away from the sun, a nuclear battery would be the method of choice.

The prototype “steam hopper” at the Honeybee Robotics test center. Credit: Honeybee Robotics

A video of the first demonstration of the prototype was recently posted on twitter by Kris Zacny, vice president of Honeybee Robotics. As Metzger described the demonstration in a recent UCF press release:

” It’s awesome. WINE successfully tapped the ground, fabricated the rocket thruster, and launched on a jet of steam extracted from the simulant. We could potentially use this technology to jump to the Moon, Ceres, Europe, Titan, Pluto, the poles of Mercury, asteroids – anywhere there is water and gravity low enough.

The Steam Hopper Prototype was created by Honeybee in collaboration with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, which helped develop the first steam rocket thrusters. UCF provided the simulated asteroid material, while Metzger created the computer models and simulations needed to prove the concept (a process that took three years).

The hopper would harness key technological elements like the Mobile In-Situ Water Extractor (MISWE), a spiral fluted coring tube developed by Honeybee for NASA missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond. For the WINE spacecraft, this extractor is combined with a 3D printed cold gas thruster and a tank specially designed to fit inside a CubeSat.

The WINE prototype takes off using steam extracted from a hydrated asteroid simulant. Credit: Kris Zacny / Honeybee Robotics

The 11-second video posted to Twitter shows the prototype cranking up its engine and levitating at the company’s test facilities on December 31. This demonstration came on the heels of a Phase 2 grant awarded by NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR / SBTT) programs – which was awarded in 2016 and lasted two years.

“The project was the result of a collaborative effort between NASA, academia and industry; and it was a huge success, ”Kris Zacny said in a company press release. “WINE-type spaceships have the potential to change the way we explore the universe.”

The implications of this technology go far beyond mining asteroids. Currently, interplanetary missions are forced to end once the spacecraft runs out of rocket fuel. But as Metzger explained, the development of this type of spacecraft (which can extract and process its own fuel), would significantly extend the lifespan of interplanetary missions:

“Each time, we are wasting our huge investment of time and money that we put into building and sending the spacecraft to its target. WINE was designed to never run out of thruster so exploration was less. It also allows us to explore faster, as we don’t have to wait years for a new spacecraft to leave Earth every time.

It has long been believed that a giant asteroid, which long ago shattered into the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, eventually reached Earth and caused the dinosaurs to become extinct.  New studies indicate that dinosaurs may have been threatened with extinction before the asteroid impact, and mammals were already on the increase.  Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech
An ISRU propulsion system could allow indefinite missions to mine asteroids or explore the solar system. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

Given the speed at which commercial aerospace (aka NewSpace) is advancing and the fact that asteroid exploration will begin very soon, it might only be a decade, if not a few years, before mining vessels like WINE hit the ground running. are sent to the nearest asteroids. . And with several agencies looking to conduct lunar and Martian exploration missions, steam hopper spacecraft could find themselves traveling throughout the solar system.

Given the potential fallout, there likely won’t be a shortage of industries looking to get into this booming industry. And if the technology and methodology can be worked out, mankind could consider the Gold Rush to end all Gold Rushes. Not to mention iron, nickel, cobalt, manganese, molybdenum, aluminum, titanium, water and many other resources!

The company has since released a full video that introduces the WINE concept and technology demonstration. Check it out below:

Further reading: UCF, the spatial resource, Bee robotics

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