why the future is steampunk: steam-powered spacecraft could explore asteroids
From nuclear rockets, solar sails, antimatter engines, ion drives, domesticated black holes, and warp drives, it’s the extremes that dominate discussions about new ways to get from Point A to Point B in space. And this is why it may be a shock to the system to hear about plans for a real, honest to goodness steam engine to be deployed on spacefaring probes. It’s as if we broke out of the real world and fell into a steampunk fantasy. But when you consider why there’s so much talk about advanced technologies and what we actually need from a propulsive system after we leave the Earth, it actually makes a whole lot of sense to go back to steam when trying to hop between comets and asteroids. In fact, it may be the easiest and most efficient way to explore the detritus of our solar system’s formation.
Consider that when we talk about new propulsion for spacecraft, we usually do it in the context of getting humans to other planets and other stars faster, and even if those systems to work as advertised, it would still be a challenge to get where we want to go. But what if we didn’t want to travel quickly? What if the goal was to travel light, live off resources abundant in space, and to make it to as many destinations as possible? Well, that’s where the steam engine comes into play. Comets and asteroids have a lot of water ice that can easily be mined, then heated until it becomes steam, and ejected out of an exhaust.
Just ejecting a cloud of steam is enough to get you going in space, as we’re taught by Newton’s Third Law. Ejecting it forcefully enough in low gravity environments will let you achieve escape velocity and accelerate you towards your next target where you can replenish your fuel and do the same thing again when you’re ready to leave. It’s like launching a ship that can find a gas station pretty much everywhere it’s meant to go, which is great for an extremely long duration mission. However, despite the obvious design advantages, its creators are really exaggerating when they say that their probes could explore the cosmos forever.
Their on board computers are more likely to fail from old age and radiation before they runs out of resources to keep hopping from small icy body to small icy body across the solar system, and at some point their mechanical parts will fail without proper maintenance, even if their design is rather simple and doesn’t involve too many moving pieces. But again, with all that said, a tough, steam-propelled spaceship seems pretty much perfect for asteroid-hopping, and while NASA has bowed out after the initial proof of concept, one can see aspiring asteroid mining companies in the market for building and launching a such machines to explore potential mining targets and help create their initial supply lines.