NASA/Glenn Research Center
Researchers around the world are working to develop and demonstrate new propulsion systems that could potentially open up vast stretches of the cosmos to exploration.
Introducing the Warpship
Until now, there has been little idea about what a spaceship propelled by a warp drive (or a warpship) would look like. Would it resemble the sleek Starship Enterprise? Or will it be like nothing we've seen before? After speaking with Dr. Richard Obousy, he shared his concept for a futuristic, yet scientifically accurate, warpship design. The physics behind the warpship is purely theoretical, however. 'Dark energy' needs to be understood and harnessed, plus vast amounts of energy needs to be generated, meaning the warpship is a technology that could only be conceived in the far future. That said, Dr. Obousy's warpship design uses our current knowledge of spacetime and superstring theory to arrive at this futuristic concept. So here's your exclusive look at what could be the future warp drive propulsion...
Capturing Dark Energy
The physics behind the warp drive is, as you'd expect, complex. However, it is hoped that in the future mankind will learn how to harness 'dark energy', an energy that is theorized to permeate through the entire universe. Cosmologists are particularly interested in dark energy as it is most commonly associated with the observed expansion of the universe. Immediately after the Big Bang, some 13.73 billion years ago, the universe expanded faster than the speed of light, an event called universal inflation. Dark energy (which still has experts baffled as to what it actually is) is theorized to have driven this expansion, and it continues to this day. Much like the 2-dimensional surface of a balloon stretching when being inflated, 3-dimensional space is stretching, propelling the galaxies away from one another. If an advanced technology could harness this dark energy, a warpship could possibly manipulate the spacetime surrounding it. According to Dr. Obousy, the extra dimensions as predicted by superstring theory could be shrunk and expanded by the warp drive through manipulation of local dark energy. At the front of the warpship spacetime would be compressed, and it would expand behind. "You can apply the analogy of a surfer riding a 'wave' of spacetime," Dr. Obousy told Discovery Space. This 'wave' would facilitate faster-than-light-speed propulsion without breaking any laws of physics.
The shape of the warpship was chosen to optimize the manipulation of surrounding dark energy, creating a spacetime bubble. How exactly the bubble would be created is still a mystery. But once the bubble gets created, spacetime at the front of the warpship would be compressed, and behind, it would expand. Inside the bubble, spacetime remains unchanged; therefore the warpship floats in the center of stationary space while the bubble moves through spacetime. The bubble itself, containing the warpship, "drives the spacecraft forwards at arbitrarily high speeds," said Obousy. This means the warpship can travel faster than the speed of light. To initiate the warp drive, however, vast amounts of energy would be required. Also, there will be some practical issues to overcome, such as preventing the creation of artificial black holes, as well as catastrophic warp bubble collapse when the power is switched off.
It's really starting to look as if an "impossible" space propulsion technology actually works.
Researchers at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston have found that a microwave thruster system that requires no propellant does indeed generate a small amount of thrust, Wired UK reported Thursday (July 31). If the technology pans out, it could make spaceflight far cheaper and speedier, potentially opening up much of the cosmos to exploration, advocates say.
"Test results indicate that the RF [radio frequency] resonant cavity thruster design, which is unique as an electric propulsion device, is producing a force that is not attributable to any classical electromagnetic phenomenon and, therefore, is potentially demonstrating an interaction with the quantum vacuum virtual plasma," the NASA team wrote in their study, which they presented Wednesday (July 30) at the 50th Joint Propulsion Conference in Cleveland. [Superfast Spacecraft Propulsion Concepts (Images)]
The roots of the propulsion system tested by the NASA team trace back to a British researcher named Roger Shawyer, who claims that his "EmDrive" generates thrust by rocketing microwaves around in a chamber. There is no need for propellant, as solar power can be used to produce the microwaves.
Shawyer says that his company, Satellite Propulsion Research Ltd., has successfully tested experimental versions of the thruster. But many scientists have dismissed or downplayed such claims, saying the propulsion system violates the law of conservation of momentum, Wired UK reported.
In 2012, however, a team of Chinese researchers built their own version of the system and found that it does indeed work, generating enough thrust to potentially power a satellite. Then, an American scientist named Guido Fetta constructed his own device, which he calls the "Cannae Drive," and convinced the NASA team — which included warp drive researcher Sonny White — to try it out, which they did over the course of eight days in August 2013.
The NASA scientists determined that the Cannae Drive produces 30 to 50 micronewtons of thrust — less than 0.1 percent of that measured by the Chinese team, Wired UK noted, but nevertheless suggesting that the technology works.
The thruster may work by somehow harnessing the subatomic particles that continuously pop into and out of existence, the NASA researchers suggest. The results and the technology are promising enough to warrant further study, they wrote in the study.
"Future test plans include independent verification and validation at other test facilities," the researchers wrote.
You can read the abstract of the NASA team's new paper for free here: http://ntrs.nasa.gov/search.jsp?R=20140006052
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