Come one, come all and behold the future of space travel: steam power!
No, seriously; half a century after the world's first manned space mission, it seems that interplanetary travel has finally entered the steam age. Scientists at the University of Central Florida have teamed up with Honeybee Robotics, a private space and mining tech company based in California, to develop a small, steam-powered spacecraft capable of sucking its fuel right out of the asteroids, planets and moons it's exploring.
By continuously turning extraterrestrial water into steam, this microwave-sized lander could, theoretically, power itself on an indefinite number of planet-hopping missions across the galaxy — so long as it always lands somewhere with H20 for the taking.
"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," Phil Metzger, a UCF space scientist and one of the chief minds behind the steampunk starship, said in a statement. Metzger added that such a self-sufficient spacecraft could explore the cosmos "forever."
Metzger and his colleagues call the lander WINE (short for "World Is Not Enough"), and a prototype of the craft recently completed its first test mission on a simulated asteroid surface in California. Using a compact drilling apparatus, the lander successfully mined the fake comet for water, converted that H20 into rocket propellant and launched itself into the air using a set of steam-powered thrusters.