Space + Technology: Advanced Propulsion For Interstellar Travel

With a very promising 5,347 exoplanets and counting reported to NASA, the next question is: How do we get to them anytime soon? How do we expand humanity’s evolution into deep space? Respect to Earth of course, but our numbers are growing, and we’re due to explore the vast cosmos. The answer is to develop more advanced spacecraft and means of propulsion or travel, which is key. Let’s take at look at a few promising systems among many, both theoretical and already in use.

Ion Thruster

The first is electric propulsion, specifically Ion Propulsion. This is achieved by accelerating ions using electrostatic forces (and solar panels) to create thrust. A few NASA missions including the Dawn mission to Vesta and Ceres, have successfully put this technology to use. The most recent NASA ion propulsion mission is DART or Double Asteroid Redirection Test. NASA JPL cites IPS as being “faster, cheaper and safer” than chemical rockets and further development continues to improve performance. There are many NASA references, though it should be well acknowledged that more and more countries are participating in advancing space technology.

Zachman style diagram of hypothetical NASA Ion Propulsion spacecraft mission

The next type of propulsion is still very much in the experimental phase and that is EmDrive, or using electromagnetic waves to directly create thrust. That means there’s no need for propellant! Although the mechanism of EmDrive or “resonant cavity thruster” is not widely understood, it is nevertheless starting to achieve results, thus pushing science and technology into new physics.

Although some sources describe this fuel-less thruster as “mythical” or “impossible,” NASA Eagleworks and the Limitless Space Institute were working on development. Although seemingly at a halt, the use of electromagnetism is a strong concept that should not be abandoned. Perhaps the futuristic work of Nikola Tesla ought to be consulted, if it isn’t already. His last patent was a spaceship that used “anti-electromagnetic field drive.”

The next interstellar candidate is Photonic or Laser Propulsion, based on existing technologies. The high level idea here is to fire a laser at a reflective surface, and the photons of the laser generate energy and momentum. It’s currently supported by Breakthrough Starshot and the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Program for probes and other spacecraft. Laser propulsion “…could theoretically beam a heavy spacecraft to outside the confines of our Solar System in less than 5 years – a feat that took the historic Voyager 1 probe 35 years to achieve.”

Before focusing on the last method of this article, here are a couple of other propulsions under development: Pulsed Fission-Fusion (PuFF) Propulsion, Antimatter Propulsion.

The most theoretical and advanced method of this bunch is Warp Drive, inspired by science fiction. Though, often science fiction becomes science fact, because every technology that comes into being starts as an idea. The basic concept is of Warp Drive is warping space-time, contracting space in front of the craft and expanding space behind it, using exotic matter and energy to create a bubble of sorts. There are several methods of achieving warp, warp options, both superluminal and subluminal, under development. Let’s be honest — the supposed superluminal or faster than light options are the most exciting, because they would accelerate us into spectacular discovery faster.

And what exotic matter and energy could break the “cosmic speed limit?” Possibly the theoretically faster-than-light tachyons and neutrinos. Both are subatomic particles. Neutrinos, though, are known to be produced by a variety of nuclear processes and reactions. And this relates to the possibility of Fusion Drive as well.

Tachyons, it’s been said, contradict the known laws of physics. However, these “laws” are based on human observation and understanding of nature SO FAR. There should always be room for diversity of viewpoints and the expansion of knowledge, and that comes with a measure of humility and bowing down to the great mystery. Why wouldn’t we want Tachyons to exist? Perhaps Tachyons are part of the quantum family of particles. Perhaps they are a bridge between special relativity and quantum mechanics. Anything faster than light -or ubiquitous and interconnected- would be a potential source for developing deep space crafts and propulsion.

In conclusion, fast travel through the cosmos will likely be achieved by some flights of imagination, and pushing the envelope of known physics. It’s important to remember that “can’t” and “never” won’t lead to groundbreaking innovation and incredible discoveries, and as always —

“Somewhere something incredible is waiting to be known.” ~ Carl Sagan


Published by sarah ikerd

@sarah.ikerd / owner

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