How would a steam powered spaceship work
Could ships in space use a steam engine?
A steam engine in space (assuming you mean a steam rocket engine) is not only feasible, it may even be desirable. The Neofuel location makes a strong case for water being used directly by comets, asteroids, etc., rather than breaking it down into hydrogen and oxygen, mainly because the added mass of equipment needed overwhelms the benefits of a higher ISP.
All you really need is a source of energy to heat the water into steam and off you go. This can range from sun mirrors (a sun moth) to radiant laser or microwave energy to the ship or with the help of a nuclear reactor on board. As long as the water receives enough heat energy, you have steam. Throttling the engine is as easy as adjusting the flow of water through the heat source.
The NEOfuel proposal for a steam rocket
Simplified scheme of the NTR steam rocket.The water bubble (s) would be much, much larger in real life
The downside of a steam rocket is a really terrible ISP of 195, compared to @ 450 for the ideal liquid fuel H2 / O2 engines, or between 800 and 1200 for hydrogen NERVA rocket engines. They would use enormous amounts of water to get from point A to point B, and getting from Earth to the outer planets would take many years at best. The NEOfuel site calculates that a water tanker with a payload of 10,000 tons would carry 325,000 tons of water as the reaction mass.
Final configuration: H2O NTR option
10,000 tons net payload
358,000 tons of water propellant
104 tons of water bladder
208 tons of water bubble armor
656 tons of nuclear thermal rocket engines
122 tons of water sucker
In contrast, the LH2 option works like this:
10,000 tons of payload
(138,000 to 453,000 tons of water for LH2) 15,400 to 50,300 tons of LH2 propellant
154 to 503 tons of armored LH2 tanks
472 to 1536 tons of LH2 NTR engines
48 - 156 tons of water to extract
559 to 10248 tons of electricity for electrolysis
70 to 5027 tons for cryolizer hardware
372 to 10609 tons of electricity for cryolisers
So steam is a means of moving inexpensive payloads around the solar system inexpensively, but you have to accept a low ISP, large amounts of water are used as the reaction mass, and long trigger times.
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