Steam powered space probes may soon be refuelling themselves on asteroids

Warp-drives? Impulse engines? Forget all that. NASA’s on a quest to invent steam-powered spaceships. And it could solve its most pressing problem.

If there’s one thing holding us back from exploring space, it’s fuel. It’s bulky. It’s heavy. And probes must carry their own supply. When that runs out, their lights go out. But what if every asteroid represented a potential pit-stop?

The issue of powering craft through space won’t go away.

Solar panels can provide all the electricity a space probe needs. But, if it wants to move, it must also have a propellant.

We have ultra-efficient ion engines. But even these need to carry stocks of expensive Xenon gas.

We’re experimenting with light sails. But we’ve a way to go to effectively tack against the solar winds.

Now NASA has taken a step back.

Back to the age of steam.

A flurry of space probes scattered through the solar system have taught us one thing: water is surprisingly common.

At least in the form of ice.

Wherever there is a deep crater, or crack, there’s likely a frozen deposit.

And this presents an exciting opportunity: readily available fuel.

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.

“WINE successfully mined the soil, made rocket propellant and launched itself on a jet of steam extracted from the simulant,” UCF planetary scientist Phil Metzger says. “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.”

And it doesn’t even need soil. It can land on a block of ice.

The experimental Spider Water Extraction System can “drill into tough icy and mineral composites that can be as hard as concrete,” its manufacturer, Honeybee, says in a statement.

“Using local resources means missions can start with lower supplies, or extend their missions far beyond what is possible with materials on-board.”