Science

NASA news: Space engineer proposes accelerator propelling craft ‘close to light speed’ | Science | News

The NASA Marshall Space Flight Centre engineer has advanced an alternative to traditional fuel for propelling rockets through space. This is a huge, helix-shaped engine powered by a particle accelerator. Dr Burns describes the controversial and highly experimental device as a “helical engine.”

The Marshall Space Flight Centre Director proposed the idea in a series of slides published to the space agency’s Technical Reports server.

He wrote: “This in-space engine could be used for long-term satellite station-keeping without refuelling.

“It could also propel spacecraft across interstellar distances, reaching close to the speed of light.”

The design builds upon a simple experiment used to describe genius scientist Isaac Newton’s third law of motion that every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

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A weight moving along a straight rod will only cause the box it is in to move back and forth along a frictionless surface: there is no forward acceleration.

Instead, Dr Burns proposes pushing a particle accelerator – rather than a weight – back and forth along a helix, with the mass increasing as it moves in the forward direction and decreasing as it bounces backward.

This way, when the rotating ion ring hits the front of the compartment, it produces a forward acceleration.

The NASA scientist suggests if his helical engine is provided with enough time and power, it could reach potentially extraordinary speeds aided with a particle accelerator.

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The idea is admittedly controversial, with many in the field extremely sceptical of the idea.

Dr Burns admitted to New Scientist: “I’m comfortable with throwing it out there.

“If someone says it doesn’t work, I’ll be the first to say, it was worth a shot.”

First, the design would only be able to work up enough momentum in space, a completely frictionless environment.

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Were it on Earth, it would require a ton of power—about 125 megawatts, enough energy to power a small city — to achieve just one newton of energy, the same amount of force it takes to type on a keyboard.

The helical particle accelerator would additionally need to be huge.

Dr Burns believes that in order to create actual momentum, it would have to be approximately 65ft (20m) long and 40ft (13m) across.

For reference, the International Space Station (ISS) is almost 330ft (100m) in length.

As Dr Burns suggests in the proposal, this would make it a good option for powering large spacecraft.

There are a number of issues that make his engine designs difficult to employ in space.

The greatest of which is the engine is extremely inefficient and will likely violate the laws of the conservation of momentum.

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