Steampunk fans rejoice! Your favorite technology has gone mainstream in a most sci-fi way … a company in Florida has successfully tested a steam-powered spaceship – landing it on an artificial asteroid, refueling it with asteroid water and taking off again. Holy Jules Verne!
“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."
What’s old is new again and what’s sci-fi is now … sci. Elon Musk just announced plans to equip a Tesla Roadster with hovering rocket thrusters like Doc Brown’s DeLorean in “Back to the Future Part II” and now planetary research scientist Phil Metzger says steam-powered spaceships (remember the steam-powered locomotive in "Back to the Future Part 3") are here and will soon be traveling there … to infinity and beyond! Or at least to the next space body with water to refuel itself.
According to a University of Central Florida press release, Metzger led a collaboration between private space company Honeybee Robotics (developers of space mining equipment) and a team of students at UCF in building a working prototype of WINE – the World Is Not Enough steam-powered craft he thinks will revolutionize space travel. (See a photo here.) While the idea has been around for a while, both in science fiction and real life, no one has actually tested it until this past month when the team members tested their microwave-sized craft on a simulated asteroid surface in California.
“It’s awesome. WINE successfully mined the soil, made rocket propellant, and launched itself on a jet of steam extracted from the simulant.”
Metzger spent three years helping turn computer models into a real, albeit small, spacecraft built by Honeybee. While steam power landed the WINE on the artificial asteroid soil (developed by the UCF students), the mining for minerals and water was powered by solar panels. Refueled, the steam thrusters (developed with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida) then lifted the WINE back into simulated space, most likely to toasts by the team with some real wine and beer.
“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.”
Metzger is on his way to becoming the Robert Goddard of steam space travel. He’s partnered with NASA (his former employer) to find investors to mover from prototype on the ground to steam-spewing spaceship on its way to seek out new places with water. Mars seems like an obvious choice, along with some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn and then to the asteroids and beyond.
To Infinity and Beyond … with steam!