Steam Engines In Space?

March 27, 2011 at 8:06 am | Posted in Miscellaneous, Regular Feature, Science News | 6 Comments
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Not so ridiculous anymore, eh Marty?

Sounds absurd, right? The very idea of using a steam engine to reach the stars hearkens back to an age when science fiction was in its infancy and modern methods of rocket propulsion had yet to be conceived of by mankind. Today with the advances in liquid fossil fuels, xenon propulsion, microwave propulsion technology, and the commonly used cryogenic fuels, the idea of a steam powered spaceship actually seems silly. Or does it? (Be a lousy premise for an article if I didn’t have something up my sleeve, eh?)

It turns out that in order to bring us to the future NASA scientists and engineers are looking to technologies from the past. Specifically they are developing a water powered “Space Coach” designed for use in manned missions to Mars.

As fantastic as it sounds these water powered vehicles would use large solar panels to super-heat water into steam that could be channeled through a nozzle. In the weightlessness of space the steam nozzles would then be used to direct a manned module to any point in the solar system.

The fact is that while we still envision travel beyond the Earth and our moon to be under constant propulsion in our minds most of the real movement of a spacecraft is still accomplished using gravity assisted “sling shot” maneuvers using whatever sources of gravity the craft encounters on route. In most cases there is only the need for initial propulsion and then maneuvering thrusters as the craft journeys toward its intended target. Newton’s Laws of Motion tells us that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In a case where small course corrections are needed, steam power is as good as any other source.

To be specific the idea is to use the solar panels to create electricity that will be stored in batteries. When it is time to execute a maneuver such as a course correction or to achieve an orbit the water would be heated electrically and the resulting steam directed through a thruster.

The vessels equipped with these steam propulsion rigs would be permanently based in space. While steam power is more than ample to direct a vehicle in the void of space it clearly isn’t powerful enough to break free of Earth’s gravity or one would assume the Greeks, Romans, or Chinese might have done so a millennium or two ago. Traditional rockets would be used to bring the vessels to space initially where they would take up residence in orbit around Earth, the moon, and presumably Mars where they would be used to shuttle crew and materials.

This approach is not only innovative but is highly cost effective. The cost of a journey to Mars and back would be roughly the same as a single Space Shuttle launch due to the lower fuel costs and the ability to reuse the craft many times. It is estimated that it would cost roughly 1/30TH the amount of money to send a steam powered module to Mars than it would if we used traditional rockets such as the Orion rockets I wrote about in an earlier article. To read more on this remarkable spacecraft and its potential for furthering our efforts to explore our solar system, you can read an excellent article on it at Space.com by clicking here.

I am also including a video below on some of the other forms of propulsion and exploration that NASA is working with. Enjoy.

by Revmacd
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