Steam-propelled spacecraft prototype can theoretically explore celestial objects "forever"

January 11, 2019 by Zenaida Gonzalez Kotala, University of Central Florida
Credit: NASA

Using steam to propel a spacecraft from asteroid to asteroid is now possible, thanks to a collaboration between a private space company and the University of Central Florida.

UCF planetary research scientist Phil Metzger worked with Honeybee Robotics of Pasadena, California, which developed the World Is Not Enough prototype that extracts water from asteroids or other planetary bodies to generate steam and propel itself to its next mining target.

UCF provided the simulated asteroid material and Metzger did the computer modeling and simulation necessary before Honeybee created the prototype and tried out the idea in its facility Dec. 31. The team also partnered with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, to develop initial prototypes of steam-based rocket thrusters.

"It's awesome," Metzger says of the demonstration. "WINE successfully mined the soil, made rocket propellant, and launched itself on a jet of steam extracted from the simulant. 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."

WINE, which is the size of a microwave oven, mines the water from the surface then makes it into steam to fly to a new location and repeat. Therefore, it is a rocket that never runs out of fuel and can theoretically explore "forever."

The process works in a variety of scenarios depending on the gravity of each object, Metzger says. The spacecraft uses deployable solar panels to get enough energy for mining and making steam, or it could use small radiosotopic decay units to extend the potential reach of these planetary hoppers to Pluto and other locations far from the sun.

Metzger spent three years developing technology necessary to turn the idea into reality. He developed new equations and a new method to do computer modeling of steam propulsion to come up with the novel approach and to verify that it would actually work beyond a computer screen.

By using steam rather than fuel, the World Is Not Enough (WINE) spacecraft prototype can theoretically explore “forever,” as long as water and sufficiently low gravity is present. Credit: University of Central Florida

The development of this type of spacecraft could have a profound impact on future exploration. Currently, interplanetary missions stop exploring once the spacecraft runs out of propellant.

"Each time we lose our tremendous investment in time and money that we spent building and sending the spacecraft to its target," Metzger says. "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."

The project is a result of the NASA Small Business Technology Transfer program. The program is designed to encourage universities to partner with small businesses, injecting new scientific progress into marketable commercial products.

"The project has been a between NASA, academia and industry; and it has been a tremendous success," says Kris Zacny, vice president of Honeybee Robotics. "The WINE-like spacecrafts have the potential to change how we explore the universe."

The team is now seeking partners to continue developing small spacecraft.

Metzger is an associate in planetary science research at UCF's Florida Space Institute. Before joining UCF, he worked at NASA's Kennedy Space Center from 1985 to 2014. He earned both his master's (2000) and doctorate (2005) in physics from UCF. Metzger's work covers some of the most exciting and cutting-edge areas of space research and engineering. He has participated in developing a range of technologies advancing our understanding of how to explore the solar system. The technologies include: methods to extract water from ; 3-D printing methods for structures built from asteroid and Martian clay, and lunar soil mechanic testers for use by gloved astronauts.

Honeybee Robotics, a subsidiary of Ensign Bickford Industries, focuses on developing drilling tools and systems for finding life as well as for space mining for resources. Honeybee has previously deployed and operated Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT) on Mars Exploration Rovers (MER), Icy Soil Acquisition Device (ISAD) on Mars Phoenix, and Sample Manipulation System (SMS) for the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument on the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL). The MSL also has Honeybee's Dust Removal Tool. Current flight and R&D projects include systems for Mars, the Moon, Europa, Phobos, Titan, and others.

Explore further: Professor hopes key to deep-space exploration is the moon

Related Stories

Robotic explorers may usher in lunar 'water rush'

November 18, 2012

(—The American space program stands at the cusp of a "water rush" to the moon by several companies developing robotic prospectors for launch in the near future, according to a NASA scientist considering how to ...

Astronauts to bring asteroid back into lunar orbit

August 7, 2017

Future space exploration aims to fly further from Earth than ever before. Now, Italian Space Agency scientists have expressed an interest in contributing to the development of robotic technologies to bring an asteroid from ...

Recommended for you

Saturn hasn't always had rings

January 17, 2019

One of the last acts of NASA's Cassini spacecraft before its death plunge into Saturn's hydrogen and helium atmosphere was to coast between the planet and its rings and let them tug it around, essentially acting as a gravity ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

4 / 5 (4) Jan 11, 2019
Could this be a viable option for mid-sized asteroid diversion ??
3 / 5 (2) Jan 11, 2019
wasn't ome of the earliest steam locomotives named "The Rocket"?

& won't the steampunk fictioneers have fun with this idea?

Nik, it is a possibility that many of the asteroids are just rubble piles. Barely held together with collective gravity. Maybe also gooey ice (there's a term for that smushed together gluing but can't remember what it's called)

Any attempt to push those around would probably cause the asteroid to break-up into discrete clumps & rock & a cloud of gravel. I am unsure if trying to push space icebergs is viable? Ice got it's own rules.

For the rubble piles I suggest using a trawler style method
Net it it with sticky nanomaterial webbing.
Then give it a pull for acceleration.

Though once it's moving?
Going to be difficult to control, aim, steer or alter it's momentum.

However, if there are several robot/drone trawler-tugs, each able to pull from a different direction? A crude but doable process with today's tech.
5 / 5 (5) Jan 11, 2019
Once you get into space it's pretty easy to move around, especially if you are not in a hurry. The main problem is getting up there.
5 / 5 (2) Jan 11, 2019

gravity tractor, ftw.
5 / 5 (3) Jan 11, 2019
In "Exiles to Glory" by Jerry Pournelle, eventually a water-heater, terrestrial-type, is employed as a source of thrust. It's hard to avoid spoilers here, but the book's been out for decades.
5 / 5 (2) Jan 11, 2019
You can also use a laser to push from earth, as long as an object is in view. Or put one on the moon or in a large earth orbit and shoot from there.
2 / 5 (4) Jan 11, 2019
Mining pre-supposes extraction of a valuable product to be physically transported to off body locations, like an orbiting processing factory and eventual shipment to either an in-space manufacturing ship or to Earth or maybe a factory on a different planet or large processing ore bearing planet or moon or large asteroid. Steam, while as a civil engineer I have the tables to engineer machines to utilize it is NOT rocket fuel. NOW, if you break that steam into heavy hydrogen and combine it with He3 in a fusion reactor......then it is a usable fusion plasma. With a small aperture in the large end mirror fusion hubrid reactor within a superconducting Shawyer device, relativistic speeds should be possible. Just sit and mine till you got enough water to yield enough hH(2) fusion plasma to get to Sirius B and then take off. You might want to put a shell on that box for tanks, protection, deflector shield m2p2 gear, etc.
1 / 5 (2) Jan 11, 2019
And the best way to generate steam would be... nuclear. You could use a nuclear thermal rocket with liquid H2 as propellant for the initial voyage, with an engine configured to use H2O after it arrived.
1 / 5 (2) Jan 11, 2019
Steam, while as a civil engineer I have the tables to engineer machines to utilize it is NOT rocket fuel. NOW, if you break that steam into heavy hydrogen
Its not 'fuel' its propellant. And why waste energy splitting it when you can use it as is with a nuclear reactor to heat it to sufficient velocities?
Mark Thomas
3.5 / 5 (2) Jan 11, 2019
Setting fusion aside until we get it working, a nuclear thermal rocket engine is the way to go. You can inject a variety different propellants into the engine, heat them with the reactor, and exhaust them out the back end. Things get tricky as you go to very high temperatures and complex mixes of materials that can corrode internal components, but reducing the temperature should help. Efficiency is reduced too, but ISP is not that important when you have a large asteroid to draw from.

So what do we do with these propelled asteroids? How about fuel depots, material depots and Martian terraforming. We are going to need to move an entire atmosphere and ocean of water to Mars, so we need to think big. Perhaps we can make Kim Stanley Robinson's prediction of taking the kids to the beach on Mars to come true. Brilliant ending by the way.
3 / 5 (3) Jan 11, 2019
Lot's vof neato ideas spinning off this article.

First for the laser, nuclear, fusion, whizbang rocketry, et al. Let's assemble all the military top brass from all the different super & subpar nations in an auditorium.
Then, I want to see you each at a time explain to those brass balls why in the hell they are MOT going to react badly as you flyover or aim lasers or project plumes of plasma. tens of miles long into their satellite's orbits.

Come on chaps! I meed a good laugh watching them respond...enmass...

Oh & gravity tractor? Nice!
Well, except for the teensey little detail of somebody got to actually invent the damn thing & build a patentable working model.

What I take away from the research in this article. Is a modest proposal, based on conservative principles of techno;ogy we can develop & test over the next couple pf years. With a modest budget, to achieve limited goals.

Realistically within the means of small group, independent enterprises.
1 / 5 (3) Jan 12, 2019
Fuel or propellant, it is like the debate over black powder or smokeless powder in guns. ALL of it shoots bullets. But that is the shoots bullets. Steam, no matter what its painfully low velocity, has a low specific impulse and a slow exhaust dV/ds integrated over its verrry short path when (d^2)v/d(t^2) BECOMES zero and the grav forces and viscosity forces take over. Both become inert 'artillery shells' once the fuels shoot their short burst and quit forever.
AND.. it can not self maneuver

This Fusion engine is the one that keeps on giving, and is refuelable over and over, whereas the fission has lower velocity and much lower specific impulse than than its' fission brother. Both of these are FAR FAR FAR better than chemical systems. Both yeild much more energy for running ship systems. Both are more reliable. Psssst don't look now but look how long Cassini lasted. And how about Deep Space I and Dawn? And NO, Ghosty, no big honkin' space gun needed!!
1 / 5 (3) Jan 12, 2019
We KNOW that Alcubierre systems are out there, and we KNOW that the Chinese have Shawyer devices that, 4th Gen and superconducting, can take off and land repeatedly, earth to orbit, at low velocity from literal office building roortop heli-pads. However the Chinese are not gonna give us their good systems that we spurned any more than they are gonna share an antigrav device if and when Dr Li perfects it. Petroleum industry shills drove her out of the country, back into the lovin' arms of Mother China so her native nation's kids can conquer and wash your kid's brains.

Until we ...earn... these systems by turning our backs on the petro bucks and their ISIS handmaidens and doing the research that creates these, we have our SYSTEM to explore which will support us verrrry well for many many generations. And our near term reachable nuke and fusion systems will do us fine IN OUR system will do us very well while we perfect the other... IF we have the WILL.
4 / 5 (4) Jan 13, 2019
This Fusion engine is the one that keeps on giving, and is refuelable over and over
I see... so what century do you envision this technology becoming available and what do you propose we do in the meantime?

This is like people in the 17th century deciding not to use black powder because they knew that smokeless was on the way.
We KNOW that Alcubierre systems are out there
Why not just type 'IM A LUNATIC!!!' In all caps instead of pretending you can say shit like this and be taken seriously?

Maybe you dont realize you're a lunatic. Yeah that must be it.
we KNOW that the Chinese have Shawyer devices that, 4th Gen and superconducting, can take off and land repeatedly, earth to orbit
-or maybe you're just a fucking troll who likes to say ignorant shit to get a rise.

Hey otto can do this too.

'We KNOW yakuza have zero point energy engines which they have leased to various parties for the purpose of creating earthquakes and hurricanes...'

-Hows that?
5 / 5 (1) Jan 13, 2019
No wait

"Bearden says that with 100% certainty certain rogue groups including the Yakuza, Japanese mafia and Aum Shinriko Japanese cult have possessed these scalar interferometers since the end of 1989 leasing them from the Russians (from the KGB, who control and use these) and are manipulating US weather, and perhaps other places, moving fronts around with their giant movable areas of heat and cold. They are able to make earthquakes."

-aw shucks no wait

"interesting. All done by extracting power from the vacuum of space with a huge di-pole. If this is a true invention then it would fit the bill for the kind of effects that Matthew Delooze talks about with the 2012 logo. It could be a hoax of course because the science of it starts to make sense and then disappears up its own aperture. Here it is - will be interested to hear what everyone thinks.

by Christi Verismo"

-aw nuts
Mark Thomas
not rated yet Jan 13, 2019
What I take away from the research in this article. Is a modest proposal . . . to achieve limited goals.

Exactly. This proposal appears like a doable small step towards systems using larger power sources. The key here is using in situ resources so we don't have to launch all the fuel from Earth. Don't forget, this has never been done. IMHO, the only likely way we are going to make permanent progress in space is to use the resources there.
not rated yet Jan 13, 2019
But Mark, that would mean initiating my infrastructure program of orbiting automated factories using materials collected by robot tugs & trawlers.

Where would be the corporate profits? Skimmed for politicians reelection campaign. That are hconstant drains on the budgets allocated to NASA, the
military & the acronym agencies.

Now otto, you know better than that! To be revealing all the secrets of the Uranus Conspiracy. (yes, pronounced as spelled, ain't the english language bloody fun!)
1 / 5 (1) Jan 14, 2019
Steam jets exiting this turbine, like a rocket engine

An aeolipile
known as a Hero's engine
is a bladeless radial steam turbine
which spins when the central water container is heated
torque is produced by steam jets exiting the turbine
like a rocket engine
In the 1st century AD
Hero of Alexandria described the device in Roman Egypt
many sources give him the credit for its invention
the aeolipile Hero described
considered to be the first recorded steam engine reaction steam turbine
derived from the Greek word Αἴολος and Latin word pila
Aeolus being the Greek god of the air and wind

How the mighty have fallen
that over 2000 years ago
to travel this vacuum
we rely
the advanced technology
of ancient civilisations

Oh! The shame, the humiliation
It makes you want to crawl under your bridge
Contemplate fin rot
5 / 5 (1) Jan 14, 2019
my chapeaux are off too you granny, in humble admiration!
not rated yet Jan 14, 2019
rrwillsj, re "smushed together gluing". I don't recall the term for it either. I suggest 'smushedtogethergluingium'. You heard it here first -- and last.
1 / 5 (1) Jan 15, 2019
Lol computer modelling? Give me a break
These people don't have the foggiest idea of steam generation and propulsion
1 / 5 (1) Jan 15, 2019
Lol computer modelling? Give me a break
These people don't have the foggiest idea of steam generation and propulsion
1 / 5 (1) Jan 15, 2019
Lol computer modelling? Give me a break
These people don't have the foggiest idea of steam generation and propulsion
5 / 5 (1) Jan 15, 2019
"... Honeybee created the prototype and tried out the idea in its facility Dec. 31 ..."

Ahh, davytriage. You might actually, you know! Make some sort of effort to actual;y read the article?

Sounds to me you heard them yelling "Stoke! Stoke!"
& you thought they were instructing you to have a stroke?.

Since you are the expert om the subject of steam powered machinery, in outer space?

Perhaps you could list for us your qualifications (you watching Thomas the Steam Engine doesn't count - sorry)

& a list with links, to your published papers on this subject?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.