NASA Engine Powered by Electricity Could Help Us Achieve Interstellar Travel

Certain members of the scientific community often suggest that humanity will have to wait hundreds of years before the necessary technology for interstellar travel exists. Others, however, have completely different plans and we may soon see real results.

Let’s say that a person was able to create a new type of propulsion system for interstellar travel that allows spaceships to move fast enough through space without requiring years at a time. This does not mean that we should immediately send a person to Alpha Centauri – this is simply not economically rational, and as we already know, there is a danger associated with cosmic radiation, which requires a separate resolution.

Therefore, the first launch to our closest star system, for example, should include a robotic spacecraft. Even so, we still face another major challenge – traveling through space requires fuel. Although scientists have been working on efficient energy sources like portable fuel generators, maybe this is not the smartest approach?

We obviously need a breakthrough technology that would allow us to travel at extreme speeds and at the same time, spare us precious fuel. Of course, numerous theories about fast travel technologies have been around for decades but proving them or developing them remains out of our reach.

A recent study focused on the possibility of creating a warp drive. Physicists created a new extended model based on an old theory which proved to be absolutely possible but once again, way beyond the capabilities of our technologies.

If you want to read about this new possibility for interstellar travel, we have a separate article discussing the warp drive model here. In this article, however, we will discuss a different hypothesis suggesting a different fast travel technology called MEGA Drive.

This concept was developed by physicist James Woodward based on his own hypothesis called the Woodward effect. It’s normal if this is the first time you are hearing about this but I guarantee you will hear a lot about it in the future since NASA granted professor Woodward sufficient funding in 2017 and 2018 and his work has already given positive results.

The Woodward Effect

The universe is too big and mostly empty. In this regard, the “extraction” of fuel for any spacecraft becomes extremely difficult. While the tech spacecraft can pick up the required speed and simply move through space by inertia, any change in speed or direction will require fuel. If we want to travel in any direction, then we need a way of movement that can be used everywhere without the need to use external resources or energy.

One technical solution for interstellar travel is the creation and annihilation of matter and antimatter – however, this method requires as much energy as is released during annihilation. The solar wind, streams of charged particles from the surface of stars – can also serve as a vehicle, but it does not allow maneuvering in space. And even if we decide to use solar sails, their size will be gigantic compared to the ship – not to mention the danger of a breakthrough from accidental debris.

So what about the aforementioned Woodward effect? The Woodward effect indicates that we can achieve excellent results in fuel conservation by manipulating its mass.

The essence of this effect is that we can loop a group of particles through a loop in such a way that they change their mass. We can pull them in when they are in an easy phase, and push when in a hard one. For comparison, it’s like grabbing a balloon and pulling it towards you, and when it turns into a cannonball, pushing it away from you. Thanks to such actions, we will feel a push in the opposite direction.

How does this happen? According to some assumptions, this does not happen at all. The effect itself is based on Mach’s Principle, and even James Woodward himself preferred to call his idea the Mach Effect.

The above Principle is quite complex, but there is also a fairly simple explanation. If you go out to the night sky and look at the stars, then the stars will be in the same position – unless, of course, you will not stand and stare at them for hours on end.

Look at your hands that are hanging by your sides – they are not acted upon by any force other than the gravity of the Earth. Now you need to make a turn and so that your hands are also relaxed. So you will feel that your hands are raised and, under the action of centrifugal force, stretch outward. If you continue to spin and look at the stars, you will notice that the stars revolve around you.

Physicist Ernst Mach suggested that this was not an accident. He believed that at a certain level, your hands and stars interact with each other. An experiment like this creates a physical system. Strange and unlikely, but still.

Naturally, Mach did not believe that it was the stars that caused the hands to move, but he assumed that such an interaction was permissible … albeit on a different scale. Here we go from Mach to Einstein. The latter explained that not only does time change under the influence of speed, but so does mass.

In this case, if you have an object moving in the system, which may include distant stars and closer objects, then the mass of the object will change as it moves. Pull it in when it is light and push it away when it is heavy – this will give you a push while being in a system where no mass or energy is created/destroyed.

Thus, we can supply the spacecraft with the necessary mass for movement, spend this mass by rotating it in a closed system using the Woodward effect and return home with exactly the same amount of fuel that was supplied originally.

Sounds confusing. How possible is the creation of such engines that would make interstellar travel a reality? Depends on whether the Mach Principle actually works.

Many scientists – including Einstein himself – rejected this idea. Others are considering using a similar principle in a practical sense – again, if it works. The Woodward effect has been tested numerous times. Some tests indicated that the effect might be even stronger than Woodward had anticipated, but other tests showed no effect.

The Mach-effect gravitational assist (MEGA) drive – the future of interstellar travel?

Professor James Woodward has been working on this concept for decades. More importantly, he developed a real thruster design, powered by electricity. Initial tests did not prove his concept to the extent he was hoping for because the MEGA drive was unable to create the necessary amount of thrust.

Fortunately for the professor, the MEGA drive was convincing enough to win several grants from NASA’s Advanced Concepts Institute (NIAC) and $625,000 in funding. This happened between 2017 and 2018 but the professor has not since abandoned his project. On the contrary, the breakthrough results came in 2019 after he and his associates redesigned the thruster.

Professor Woodward’s MEGA drive thruster test device put in a homemade vacuum chamber. Credit: Rozette Rago / Wired

Professor Woodward’s team achieved thrust shots in the micronewton range which is enough thrust to move a small object on a flat surface. Understandably, this may not sound significant when the goal is to power up an enormous spacecraft for years or decades of interstellar travel.

However, this achievement proves that his concept is more than just a hypothesis. It means that this technology could be developed on a larger scale. The final confirmatory tests of the MEGA drive are scheduled for 2021 at NASA’s facilities but it all depends on the current Covid-19 situation.

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