The prototype steam hopper was created by Honeybee in collaboration with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, which helped develop the initial steam-based rocket thrusters. UCF provided the simulated asteroid material, while Metzger created the computer models and simulations needed to prove the concept (a process that took three years).
The hopper would leverage key pieces of technology like the Mobile In-Situ Water Extractor (MISWE), a spiral fluted coring tube that was developed by Honeybee for NASA missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. For the WINE spacecraft, this extractor is combined with a 3D-printed cold gas thruster and a tank that were specifically designed to fit inside a CubeSat.
The 11-second video posted to twitter shows the prototype firing its engine and levitating at the company’s test facility on Dec. 31st. This demonstration came at the conclusion of a Phase 2 grant awarded by NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/SBTT) programs – which was awarded in 2016 and lasted for two years.
“The project has been a collaborative effort between NASA, academia and industry; and it has been a tremendous success,” said Kris Zacny in a company press statement. “The WINE-like spacecrafts have the potential to change how we explore the universe.”
The implications of this technology go far beyond asteroid mining. At present, interplanetary missions are forced to conclude once the spacecraft runs out of propellant. But as Metzger explained, the development of this type of spacecraft (which can mine and process its own fuel), would significantly extend the lives of interplanetary missions:
Given the rate at which commercial aerospace (aka. NewSpace) is progressing, and the fact that asteroid prospecting will be commencing very soon, it could be just a decade or even a few years before mining craft like WINE are being sent to the nearest asteroids. And with multiple agencies looking to conduct lunar and Martian exploration missions, steam hopper spacecraft could find themselves traveling all across the Solar System.
Given the potential payoff, there is likely to be no shortage of industries looking to get in on this burgeoning industry. And if the technology and methodology can be worked out, humanity could be looking at the Gold Rush to end all gold rushes. Not to mention iron, nickel, cobalt, manganese, molybdenum, aluminum, titanium, water and a whole lot of other resources!