Revolutionary new steam-powered space technology should enable future space probes to hop from asteroid to asteroid; around the surface of the Moon or Mars; or even on a far-flung Kuiper Belt object for decades at a time. It’s the product of a technology development partnership between Honeybee Robotics, the University of Central Florida (UCF), and NASA’s Small Business Technology Transfer program.
The fundamentals of the technology have been demonstrated under relevant vacuum conditions using a specially-manufactured asteroid simulant, Kris Zacny, director of exploration technologies at Honeybee Robotics, told me. And he says the technology is mature and ready to go .
The team recently was able to launch a small spacecraft prototype a few feet into the air inside a vacuum chamber at Honeybee’s Pasadena, Calif. facility.
About the size of a microwave oven, the WINE (World Is Not Enough) spacecraft successfully mined the soil, made rocket propellant, and launched itself on a jet of steam extracted from the simulant, team-member Phil Metzger, a planetary scientist at UCF’s Florida Space Institute, noted in a statement.
“We could potentially use this technology to hop around asteroids, Pluto, the poles of Mercury — anywhere there is water and sufficiently low gravity,” Metzger said in a statement.
WINE uses deployable solar panels to get enough energy to extract (or mine) water that it then heats into steam to propel itself to its next mining target. Designed to operate with less gravity than that on earth, so the team says it could be used to hop several kilometers on a moon like Jupiter’s Europa or to leave an asteroid and then coast to its next target.
Using heat, water can be relatively easy extracted on other planetary bodies, says Zacny. He says that’s why WINE can refuel itself. By contrast, making Hydrazine (N2H4) would require both water (H2O) and nitrogen (N2) as well as some kind of additional chemical process, says Zacny.
Although it might seem like a no-brainer, Zacny says the technology’s first use might not necessarily be on the surface of our Moon.
Where we would test it depends on flight opportunities, he notes. But Zacny says that WINE could be tested on any planetary body that has water – either hydrated water such as that found on the most common C-type, largely carbon-based asteroids, or on bodies known to harbor water-ice such as Saturn’s moon of Enceladus.
As for the biggest technical challenge?
Zacny says that would be capturing water. The heating of loose, fine-grained, soil-like regolith found on the moon and other planetary bodies, for instance, is ‘relatively’ easy, he says. But Zacny says that capturing water vapor is not. That’s why our system, which uses coring auger drills would help, he says, since the heated regolith is essentially ‘sealed’ inside the auger. He says the team is also working on another approach that would mine regolith into a centralized container, heat it up to extract water vapor, and then expel both steam and dry regolith. He says the process of expelling the regolith would even provide extra thrust.
As for lunar operations?
Before attempting full scale lunar water-mining operations, we would need to perform ground-truthing, says Zacny. That is, to analyze which crater and which area within a crater has water.
Having WINE is one of the ways to do this, says Zacny. This would be the first demonstration of lunar in situ resource utilization, he says, and notes that it would be an end-to-end system: mining regolith, extracting water, and using steam to launch.
Although Zacny is not certain whether the technology has readily available earth-based applications, he does see it used in CubeSats. And Zacny notes that even high school and university CubeSat teams would be able to handle the water-based steam propellant because, unlike hydrazine, there would be no need for hydrazine.