The steam engine powered the industrial revolution, but humanity has long since moved beyond this archaic method of generating locomotion. However, we might not be done with steam power just yet. A team from the University of Central Florida (UCF) has constructed a prototype for a steam-powered space probe that could theoretically explore forever by mining water from moons or asteroids.
The most common type of propulsion in spacecraft is the venerable chemical rocket. These engines fire with high thrust for brief periods. Some spacecraft like NASA’s Dawn probe use ion engines, which fire continuously over long periods with just a little thrust. Our ability to explore outer space is dependent on many factors, but there is one inescapable truth no matter how you do it: When you’re out of fuel, the mission is over. For example, the Cassini probe was still in great shape when it ran out of fuel, but NASA opted to crash it into Saturn before it lost control entirely.
One way to extend the life of a mission is to create more resources at your destination. This so-called “in-situ” approach will be vital for long-term missions on the moon, Mars, and beyond. Using water to efficiently produce rocket propellant (i.e., hydrogen and oxygen) is a complex process, but the UCF researchers have a much simpler approach. Instead of turning water into hydrogen and oxygen, the WINE (World Is Not Enough) probe just uses it to make steam.
WINE is about the size of a microwave, equipped with tools to extract water from low-gravity objects like asteroids. The team tested WINE with a simulated asteroid material (also produced by UCF), showing that it could extract water ice and use it to generate steam.
By compressing the steam, WINE could release a jet that launches it up from the surface of an asteroid or small moon. Since the team doesn’t have access to a low-gravity environment, they’ve had to rely on computer simulations that show WINE could “hop” across the surface of such an object, picking up more fuel as it goes.
The energy to boil water and generate steam would come from solar power when the probe is close enough to the sun. However, the outer solar system doesn’t get much sunlight. For those destinations, WINE could employ a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) like the one used in Curiosity.
Wine grew out of the NASA Small Business Technology Transfer program, which aims to foster cooperation between academia and industry in the development of future technologies. There aren’t any steam-powered probes out there right now, but maybe one day.
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