Steam Engines In Space?

March 27, 2011 at 8:06 am | Posted in Miscellaneous, Regular Feature, Science News | 7 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 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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  1. Another great article, Eev!

  2. Edit: Rev!

  3. Thanks DLE. I appreciate the feedback.

  4. Thanks for blogging about the article. I wanted to provide a bit more detail about how the system works.

    The basic idea is to use solar arrays to generate electricity, which in turn powers microwave electrothermal thrusters that superheat water vapor to produce thrust. The concept is very similar to a microwave oven, except that a large amount of power is used to heat a small mass (a few milligrams of water per second flow through each engine). The water vapor is heated to thousands of degrees and is expelled through an exhaust nozzle to produce thrust. MET engines running on water vapor have been shown to operate at 10x the fuel efficiency compared to a chemical rocket on a similar mission.

    Costs are reduced further because anything that has a high water content (e.g. prepared food) or that can be incinerated, is eventually consumed as propellant. In theory, nearly all of the consumables you’d need on a 2+ year Mars trip could be used as propellant, which reduces costs further still.

    Most importantly, the whole system is built around existing low orbit launch platforms, so there is no dependency on an as yet built Saturn V class platform, so there’s nothing blocking the construction of testbeds to be flown in low orbit and upgraded from there.

  5. Well thanks so much for the added technical detail Brian. It is an amazing design idea. It’s great to have an even clearer picture of how the technology works.

    By similar to a microwave, do you mean they are using actual magnetron rf generators to heat the water or is it a similar but different device. I only ask because I had a vision of a spacecraft where not only is the water in just about everything used for propulsion eventually but it can be used to steam a potato too. :)

  6. The steam concept for spacecraft thrusting can be applied to different vehicle configurations. The Aldrin cycler comes to mind! And there have been proposals for build orbital towers for the Moon & Mars; both worlds have a supposed abundance of water ice?
    The possibility is that could do reliable cost effective long term mission, using well know resources incorporated into advanced concepts. This is the side of space exploration I enjoy, doing things with a sense of traditional know-how!

  7. […] could overcome the pesky power-to-weight ratio that keeps steam from ruling the skies. But NASA has been investigating the use of steam in spacecraft, which may end up being an efficient way to propel and steer our way through space. And who knows? […]

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