Ever since the dawn of history, man has been fascinated with the heavens, and the possible ways to explore the infinite mystery. The concept of interstellar expeditions has been of particular interest, thanks to the Star Trek movies and series. New discoveries seem to bring us closer to the reality that travelling through the speed of light may soon be a reality. Or so we want to believe. Just imagine, if man sent its fastest space probe to the nearest reachable star, Alpha Centauri, it would take tens of thousands of years to get there. Really mathematically daunting actually. Having said this, most scientists believe that interstellar travel won’t happen in the next several centuries. The galaxies in the universe are so ridiculously vast, it is hard to imagine such a theory.
But, it has never stopped some scientists from exploring the possibilities. Recently, a number of advanced models of propulsion have come about, fusion engines, ion thrusters, light sails pushed by lasers, wormholes, and even hydrogen bombs, have made the concept of interstellar travel a bit more possible.
The latest theory is from a physics professor emeritus at Fullerton, Jim Woodward, who has proposed a Mach-effect gravitational assist ( MEGA) drive. Strange as it may sound, Woodward submits that his drive could slowly accelerate with the help of a propulsion system powered by electricity, not combustible fuel. It is based on a disputable sub-component to Einstein’s general relativity, the principle holds that the inertia is directly tied to gravity – and in theory, clears the way for “ propellantless propulsion.”
If you don’t mind some scientific jargon, a stack of piezoelectric crystals generates the thrust, by storing small amounts of energy and vibrate when electrified. The synchronization of tens of thousands of vibrations per second produces physical momentum.Woodward calls these crystals “gizmos”, and explains that the changes in mass or “Mach effects” will slowly but surely accelerate to incredible speeds. His followers describe it as “rowing a boat on the ocean of spacetime.”
The theory suggests that a starship could reach the speed of light and reach other stars within a human lifetime. The ship would probably need a nuclear reactor on board to sustain electricity for the decades-long voyage. Still a mind-boggling amount of time though.
80 year old Woodward, who is a survivor of stage IV lung cancer, as well as Hodgkin’s lymphoma, received a grant and a slot in NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program. He has also invested around $200,000 of his own money into testing the MEGA thrusters. Though for many years, his thrusters were considered to be improbable, the scientific community has slowly given it a semblance of respect.
But given that, there are still many doubters and critics. “In my opinion there is no merit to Woodward’s theory. I think the experimental results are more interesting than the theory,” Mike McCulloch, a physicist at University of Plymouth, had this to say.
Woodward has his collaborators as well, physicist Hal Fearn explains that his doubts were answered by the lab results. “I haven’t been able to disprove it, and believe me, I’ve been trying to disprove it for the last 10 years.”
Even while the odds of the MEGA drive delivering on its promise are low, it still presents a ray of hope that soon enough, humans will be able to explore the universe just like Star Trek…”to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
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