Using steam to propel a spacecraft from asteroid to asteroid is now possible, thanks to a collaboration between a private space company and the University of Central Florida.
UCF planetary research scientist Phil Metzger worked with Honeybee Robotics of Pasadena, California, which developed the World Is Not Enough spacecraft prototype that extracts water from asteroids or other planetary bodies to generate steam and propel itself to its next mining target. …
“It’s awesome,” Metzger says 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, mines the water from the surface then makes it into steam to fly to a new location and repeat. Therefore, it is a rocket that never runs out of fuel and can theoretically explore “forever.”
The process works in a variety of scenarios depending on the gravity of each object, Metzger says. The spacecraft uses deployable solar panels to get enough energy for mining and making steam, or it could use small radiosotopic decay units to extend the potential reach of these planetary hoppers to Pluto and other locations far from the sun. …
Read more at: phys.org
I vote yes, send auto-refueling self-repairing exploration drones to the asteroid belt to catalog resources there. No telling what we might find. Or, lets skip to the advanced AI versions that build copies of themselves with collected minerals. They would also have swarm awareness so as to maximize the exploration effort and not travel to rocks already visited.
Are there any machines that build copies of themselves? This will be what some call the next major industrial revolution.
… once we’ve mastered the essential technology of life, assembling objects at the molecular level with molecular machines, there’s no reason we can’t rapidly exploit the central trick of life as well: getting the job done with machines that make copies of themselves.
Mass production has reshaped our industries, lives, economies, and societies, but it’s been a limited form of mass production: one where the process of production was explicitly designed and rigidly oriented to making a given object.
Once we can build molecular machines, we can design machines that make copies of themselves. By doing so we achieve the second level of mass production: being able to make anything we can design at a cost fundamentally constrained only by the materials and information it contains.
The idea of a machine that could produce a copy of itself has intrigued some of the greatest minds in history. Rene Descartes heads a list of philosophers, mathematicians and physicists who have long pondered the potential of a self-replicating machine. As have writers of science fiction, who have been also quick to warn of the dangers of unleashing such a powerful technology upon the world. …
Von Neumann proved that the most effective way of performing large-scale mining operations such as mining an entire moon or asteroid belt would be by self-replicating spacecraft, taking advantage of their exponential growth. In theory, a self-replicating spacecraft could be sent to a neighbouring planetary system, where it would seek out raw materials (extracted from asteroids, moons, gas giants, etc.) to create replicas of itself. These replicas would then be sent out to other planetary systems. The original “parent” probe could then pursue its primary purpose within the star system. This mission varies widely depending on the variant of self-replicating starship proposed. …
A von Neumann probe is a spacecraft capable of replicating itself. The concept is named after Hungarian American mathematician and physicist John von Neumann, who rigorously studied the concept of self-replicating machines that he called “Universal Assemblers” and which are often referred to as “von Neumann machines“.
If a self-replicating probe finds evidence of primitive life (or a primitive, low-level culture) it might be programmed to lie dormant, silently observe, attempt to make contact (this variant is known as a Bracewell probe), or even interfere with or guide the evolution of life in some way.
Physicist Paul Davies of Arizona State University has even raised the possibility of a probe resting on our own Moon, having arrived at some point in Earth’s ancient prehistory and remained to monitor Earth, which is very reminiscent of Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sentinel and the Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
A self-replicating 3D printer that spawns new, improved versions of itself is in development at the University of Bath in the UK.
The “self replicating rapid prototyper” or RepRap could vastly reduce the cost of 3D printers, paving the way for a future where broken objects and spare parts are simply “re-printed” at home. New and unique objects could also be created.
All of this for me raises an interesting question. Not only may aliens have beat us to this, creating self-replicating universe exploring machines, but here’s the thing, are we ourselves those alien probes?
Humanity may be a manifestation of alien code, (DNA?), designed to creativly use local resources to propagate and to eventually get off the local rock and continue to explore space. We do have a built in longing to communicate with aliens and to know our creator, as intelligent alien probes would.
A final point: intelligent probes do not have to know what they are in order to do their job, but they may one day reach a level of awareness where they figure it out.