Steam-Powered Asteroid Hoppers Developed through UCF Collaboration

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: UCF)

By using steam rather than fuel, the microwave-size spacecraft prototype
can theoretically explore celestial objects “forever.”

By Zenaida Gonzalez Kotala
University of Central Florida News

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 spacecraft 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.

Asteroid (Credit: NASA)

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.

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 collaborative effort 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 lunar soil; 3D 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.

  • Tom Billings

    This seems to be an excellent tech alternative to either Xenon-based ion-engine spacecraft that must be filled on Earth with a limited lifespan, ala Dawn, or even Xenon-based ion-engine spacecraft that can be reloaded with propellant, as long as the operations stay in the main asteroid belt. That would mean a high probability of access to ice-bearing CC asteroids for each journey. Since these CC Asteroids seem today to match reflectance spectra for about 75% of main belt asteroids, then there and further out into the Outer Solar System seems to be the major niche for this technology.

    If further in NEO CC asteroids have had water evaporated out of them by the Sun’s heat, then Xenon-based ion-engines with propellant reloading, or Argon-based ion-engines with reloading infrastructures depending on Argon from Mars atmosphere, seem to be more productive. If, however, the dessication of NEO CC Asteroids only goes a few centimeters to a meter deep into the asteroid, leaving the rest with substantial frozen water, then this technology seems likely to spread over the entirety of the Solar System.

  • redneck

    I’m curious as to what Isp they are getting with steam. I would guess somewhere in the low 100s from conversations with people that have done them on Earth. Then T/W and other sordid details that affect the actual usefulness of the system. I could see it as anywhere from an excellent mission enabler to uncompetitive depending on those pesky details.

  • Jeff2Space

    I’m sure the ISP is quite low. But, when you’re “hopping” around on an asteroid, you’ve essentially got unlimited propellant. So high ISP isn’t really necessary in this case.

    And if you’re on Twitter, check out Dr. Phil Metzger’s feed: @DrPhiltill

  • redneck

    I’m not on Twitter. I was thinking more about the asteroid to asteroid movement than the hopping. Different set of trades, and I agree that it would be quite useful on a single body.

  • Maxtrue

    Lots of questions

    1. Hydraulics, motors, etc. need energy too. Larger units, larger energies required.

    2. Industrial use will require redundant systems, self-repair robotics, etc. requiring more energy.

    3. non-asteroid systems hopping large amounts of material seem beyond water propulsion and on Mars and the moon, resources needed more for humans.

    Seems like solar and Hot/Cold/vacuum physics could match the ISP. Crushing mined ore would fill more of the hopper. By the time we’re really mining asteroids for our space factories I think compact fusion reactors would be the easiest solution for these robotic hoppers and their robot crews.

    Are there more important systems being designed now for cleaning up LEO besides China’s Laser Gun concept:) ? How would these systems not also be potential “weapons” ? The present global dynamic is one wall muting a lot of these bright ideas. I have not seen here at Parabolic a single article about the DOD concerns of China’s satellite placement and build out for its moon mission relative the safety of our most important defense satellites or the concerns that the Russians have placed at least two Sat killers in orbit. I just bring this up as n off-topic observation.

  • Maxtrue