Published : Tuesday, January 15, 2019 | 6:13 AM
Honeybee Robotics, a private space technology company headquartered in Northwest Pasadena, has developed a spacecraft prototype that can gather water from cosmic bodies, heat it, and travel from asteroid to asteroid using steam power.
The prototype was developed through a collaboration between Honeybee Robotics and the University of Central Florida (UCF).
UCF planetary research scientist Phil Metzger worked with Honeybee Robotics to come up with the spacecraft prototype, called the World Is Not Enough (WINE). UCF provided the simulated asteroid material, and Metzger did the computer modeling and simulation necessary, before Honeybee created the prototype.
On December 31, the team tested WINE at the Honeybee facility, and Kris Zacny, vice president at Honeybee, on New Year’s Day shared a video announcing the successful demonstration. The video showed the prototype taking off in a vacuum.
“We demonstrated prototype of WINE (the World Is Not Enough) spacecraft in vacuum,” Zacny said on Twitter. “WINE extracts water from asteroids and uses it for steam propulsion. Thanks @DrPhiltill for asteroid simulant, doing all simulations, and being an awesome PI and thanks to @NASA SBIR for funding it!”
NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, which is designed to encourage universities to partner with small businesses, injecting new scientific progress into marketable commercial products.
The team also partnered with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, to develop initial prototypes of steam-based rocket thrusters.
Honeybee Robotics calls the technology the Spider Water Extraction System and says the spacecraft “drills and acquires icy soil samples, extracts the water for later use, and disposes dry soil to prepare for another round of sample collection.”
“It’s awesome,” Metzger said 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, uses deployable solar panels to get enough energy for mining and making steam. It could also use small radioisotopic decay units to extend the potential reach of these planetary hoppers to Pluto and other locations far from the sun, a UCF statement said.
Once fully developed, the WINE spacecraft is expected to 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.”
Honeybee Robotics said the Spider Water Extraction System has two modes of mobility on an asteroid: it can walk across the surface using its legs, and hop using steam propulsion.
“As such, it could be used as a pre-mining surveying technology or as a mining platform on its own,” a description on the Honeybee Robotics website said.
The Pasadena company says the spacecraft prototype will achieve TRL 5 (Technology Readiness Level 5) within this year. TRLs are a method of estimating technology maturity of the critical technology elements of a project. TRLs are based on a scale from 1 to 9, with 9 being the most mature technology.
To learn more about Honeybee Robotics and the Spider Water Extraction System, visit www.honeybeerobotics.com/