The Future of Space Prospecting: Surprising Rocket Fuel Unveiled
by Ginger Pinholster for Embry-Riddle News
Daytona Beach FL (SPX) Feb 01, 2019
A prototype spacecraft capable of "hopping" from one asteroid to another effectively transforms water into steam, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University student-researchers have reported.
The spacecraft's steam-powered propulsion system suggests an endlessly renewable fuel that could be ideal for asteroid mining or "space prospecting," said Aerospace Engineering Senior Ankit Rukhaiyar.
Identifying renewable sources of spacecraft fuel has become increasingly important as NASA prepares to send humans to Mars and Earth's finite supply of minerals keeps shrinking. Embry-Riddle's steam-powered propulsion system suggests a way to keep spacecraft flying longer - in theory forever.
Rukhaiyar, with other students and faculty members, presented the research at a recent conference of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA).
The Embry-Riddle propulsion system was developed for Honeybee Robotics, with support from NASA, Jay D'Amico of the Louisiana Steam Equipment Company and the university's Undergraduate Research Office. The team also collaborated with Dr. Phil Metzger, a planetary scientist at the University of Central Florida and the principal investigator for the overall project.
"Honeybee Robotics made a prototype spacecraft, using our propulsion system, that works well in a vacuum on Earth, suggesting it would work in the vacuum of space, too," Rukhaiyar explained. "Our analysis shows that the propulsion system would offer more than enough pressure, heat and thrust to convert water into steam and lift the spacecraft."
Turning Water Vapor into Steam
After landing on an asteroid or other object, the spacecraft uses a pair of drills to bore into regolith - the mineral-enriched rocky soil that blankets the Moon, Mars and some asteroids.
The insulated coring bits, equipped with heaters, trigger regolith to release water vapor, which freezes inside a special cold trap. Reheating the frozen material transforms it into high-pressure steam that serves as renewable rocket fuel. Frog-like robotic legs allow the spacecraft to hop from place to place.
To develop an experimental propulsion system, the Embry-Riddle group repurposed a scuba tank to capture steam. Designing an ideal steam nozzle was especially tricky because there were no existing models, Rukhaiyar said.
The team evaluated a variety of rocket nozzles and then reverse-engineered new designs, using mathematics and a 3D printer to test different options. After many attempts, the group came up with a bell-shaped nozzle that worked well in a vacuum.
"A lot of engineering, guesswork and approximations were made, but it all worked out in the end," Rukhaiyar said. "As an engineer, you test out a few ideas, you see what worked and what didn't, and you keep iterating until you've got it right."
What are the next steps for the research?
Partnerships that Work
The AIAA paper, "An Experimental Steam Propulsion System for Spacecraft In-Situ Refueling Operations," was authored by students Rukhaiyar, Collin Topolski, Jonathan Nadeau, Patrick Serafin, Francisco Pastrana, Robert Kaminski-Duke and Diego Gonzalez as well as recent graduate James Cornett, who now works for Harris Corp.
Another Embry-Riddle team worked on theories for controlling the hopping spacecraft's movements. Faculty members Hever Moncayo and Richard Prazenica developed guidance and intelligent autonomous flight-control systems, in partnership with Honeybee Robotics. Their work was part of a project managed through NASA's Swamp Works initiative at the Kennedy Space Center.
Rukhaiyar, who is originally from India, said he hopes to pursue his Master's degree and then work in the aerospace industry after earning his Bachelor's degree from Embry-Riddle. He learned about the school through his father, an Airbus helicopter pilot. "I cannot thank Embry-Riddle enough for the opportunities they have given to me," Rukhaiyar said.
Mining the moon for rocket fuel to get us to Mars
Pasadena CA (The Conversation) May 16, 2017
Forty-five years have passed since humans last set foot on an extraterrestrial body. Now, the moon is back at the center of efforts not only to explore space, but to create a permanent, independent space-faring society. Planning expeditions to Earth's nearest celestial neighbor is no longer just a NASA effort, though the U.S. space agency has plans for a moon-orbiting space station that would serve as a staging ground for Mars missions in the early 2030s. The United Launch Alliance, a joint ventur ... read more
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