Space news #18: Is interstellar travel within our reach?
There has been talk over the past few months about a controversial propulsion system known as the EM drive. The device is a sealed cone shaped chamber with a microwave reflector at the narrow end. Emitting microwaves into the chamber produces a tiny, but measurable amount of thrust.
The problem with this idea? Conservation of momentum. Known space propulsion systems require something for the vehicle to push again, often fuel that is released at high velocity. Because of the vast distances involved, spacecraft usually have to carry a lot of fuel to get anywhere quickly. The only input the EM drive needs is electricity, it doesn’t have any moving parts and it doesn’t need any reaction mass.
While EM drive is a groundbreaking idea, it is far from proven. A number of labs have been able to replicate the original experiment and NASA is currently funding a small EM Drive project. It is difficult to find funding for ideas that contradict known physics. There are lots of theories but nobody currently has any proven idea of why it appears to work.
There’s still a long way to go. Many experiments will be needed to rule out every other conventional reason for the thrust before the only explanation is that it actually does work.
What does it all mean?
If the device could be scaled up to produce enough thrust to resist Earth’s gravity then it opens up the possibility of air travel in a vehicle without wings. Dare I say it, flying cars? Launching space vehicles from the ground would become simple and cheap. Rockets would be obsolete, for leaving the Earth at least.
Because the drive accelerates constantly, space travel will be much faster in and beyond our solar system. A vehicle could accelerate to the half point, turn around and decelerate the rest of the way. Journeys within out solar system would be measured in days or weeks. A probe could reach to the nearest star in less time than it has taken the New Horizons probe just to reach Pluto.
Where are all the aliens?
My biggest reservation, besides bending/breaking the known laws of physics, is where are all the aliens? Some have estimated that it would take just 50 million years to colonise the entire galaxy at sub-light speeds using conventional technologies that we understand. If aliens with a head start on us had a simple and cheap propulsion system like the EM drive, then why isn’t the radio spectrum full of alien chatter?
I don’t know where the aliens are, but if the EM drive is eventually proven to work then we’d better get out there and stake our claim on some of the Galaxy’s prime real estate before our neighbours move in.
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