Hyperspace Drive? NASA Engineer Claims 'Helical Engine' Could Propel Spacecraft at 99% of the Speed of Light

Tuesday, 15 October 2019 - 10:15AM
Technology
Astrophysics
Tuesday, 15 October 2019 - 10:15AM
Hyperspace Drive? NASA Engineer Claims 'Helical Engine' Could Propel Spacecraft at 99% of the Speed of Light
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Rockets as we know them leverage Newton's third law: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. As propellent combusts and is ejected from a rocket engine, the rocket travels in the opposite direction. That rule of physics has served as the core of modern jet engine technology for decades.  


Technology, however, isn't meant to remain static. Engineers and scientists – usually backed by capital – find ways to improve on existing technologies. Others, however, seek slightly more innovative solutions.


Enter David Burns, an engineer at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, who is rethinking the entire model of rocket propulsion and has designed a non-propellant based engine that he thinks could achieve speeds of 99% of the speed of light. He also did so on his own time and dollar without the benefit of an R&D budget. His research and design concepts were published on NASA's technical reports server.


A cursory glance at Burns' proposal reveals what seems to be an ingeniously simple concept. His abstract states:


"A new concept for in-space propulsion is proposed in which propellant is not ejected from the engine, but instead is captured to create a nearly infinite specific impulse. The engine accelerates ions confined in a loop to moderate relativistic speeds, and then varies their velocity to make slight changes to their mass. The engine then moves ions back and forth along the direction of travel to produce thrust. This in-space engine could be used for long-term satellite station-keeping without refueling. It could also propel spacecraft across interstellar distances, reaching close to the speed of light. The engine has no moving parts other than ions traveling in a vacuum line, trapped inside electric and magnetic fields."


Burns' "Helical Engine" is far from development, however. As New Scientist points out, the engine would need to be massive – 200 meters long and 12 meters in diameter – just to generate the amount of thrust that it takes to press the key on a keyboard, never mind enough to get a spacecraft off the ground. Moreover, the engine would only be able to achieve real velocity in the frictionless vacuum of space. Nevertheless, Burns maintains a certain inventive optimism. "The engine itself would be able to get to 99 percent the speed of light," he told New Scientist, if you had enough time and power." 


It looks like the Kessel Run will have to wait. 


EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this article had a headline referring to "warp drive," conflicting with the Star Wars reference at the end. This egregious, shameful, and willful mingling of sci-fi universes was caught and called out by a Facebook reader. We've sent Mr. Williams to bed without supper and will be beating him with a stick later. Thank you for your continued readership and diligence.
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