Steam power may seem like a relic of the 19th century, but one company wants to bring the tech to the 21st. Specifically, space startup Honeybee Robotics is teaming up with researchers from the University of Central Florida to build a spacecraft that can soar between worlds in the Solar System forever by using steam power.
Using steam power for a spacecraft, while unusual, actually makes a lot of sense. The biggest limiting factor around how long a spacecraft can operate is typically how much fuel it has onboard. Otherwise successful spacecraft, like Cassini and Dawn, often have to end their missions when they run out of fuel. This can be frustrating for scientists here on Earth because they know the other parts and components are still functioning properly and could still operate for many more years.
The genius of a steam-powered spacecraft is that it could harvest its fuel from the places it would visit. Water is everywhere in the Solar System; nearly every rock floating in space has some, and it wouldn’t be too difficult to harvest it with a spacecraft. Once harvested, the water would be heated into steam and ejected out the back as propellant.
To test the concept of an eternal water-harvesting spacecraft, Honeybee Robotics built the ‘World Is Not Enough’ prototype, which was tested at a facility at the University of Central Florida in late December, where it practiced on a mock-up asteroid surface and passed its test with flying colors.
“It’s awesome,” said UCF planetary scientist Phil Metzger in a press release. “[The prototype] 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.”
The prototype is still in the early stages of testing, and there’s no word about if or when it will actually go to space. But the project has already received NASA funding and is actively seeking additional investors, so we can expect a space test soon. At that point, space will finally experience the dawn of the steam age.