NASA engineer’s ‘helical engine’ may violate the laws of physics


Rocket engines that don’t want propellant have been proposed earlier than: that is an illustration of the EM-drive

Illustration by luismmolina/iStock / Getty Images Plus

For each motion, there’s a response: that’s the precept on which all area rockets function, blasting propellant in a single course to journey in the different. But one NASA engineer believes he may take us to the stars with none propellant in any respect.

Designed by David Burns at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, the “helical engine” exploits mass-altering results identified to happen at near-light pace. Burns has posted a paper describing the idea to NASA’s technical reviews server.

It has been met with scepticism from some quarters, however Burns believes his idea is price pursuing. “I’m comfortable with throwing it out there,” he says. “If someone says it doesn’t work, I’ll be the first to say, it was worth a shot.”


To familiarize yourself with the precept of Burns’s engine, image a field on a frictionless floor. Inside that field is a rod, alongside which a hoop can slide. If a spring inside the field provides the ring a push, the ring will slide alongside the rod a technique whereas the field will recoil in the different. When the ring reaches the finish of the field, it’ll bounce backwards, and the field’s recoil course will change too. This is action-reaction – often known as Newton’s third legislation of movement – and in regular circumstances, it restricts the field to wiggling forwards and backwards (see video beneath).

But, Burns asks, what if the ring’s mass is far larger when it slides in a single course than the different? Then it could give the field a larger kick at one finish than the different. Action would exceed response and the field would speed up forwards (see video beneath).

This mass altering isn’t prohibited by physics. Einstein’s idea of particular relativity says that objects achieve mass as they’re pushed in the direction of the pace of gentle, an impact that should be accounted for in particle accelerators. In truth, a simplistic implementation of Burns’s idea could be to switch the ring with a round particle accelerator, by which ions are swiftly accelerated to relativistic pace throughout one stroke, and decelerated throughout the different.

But Burns thinks it could make extra sense to ditch the field and rod and make use of the particle accelerator for the lateral in addition to the round motion – by which case, the accelerator would should be formed like a helix.

Frictionless area

It would additionally should be large – some 200 metres lengthy and 12 metres in diameter – and highly effective, requiring 165 megawatts of energy to generate simply 1 newton of thrust, which is about the identical power you utilize to kind on a keyboard. For that cause, the engine would solely be capable of attain significant speeds in the frictionless surroundings of area. “The engine itself would be able to get to 99 per cent the speed of light if you had enough time and power,” says Burns.

Propellant-less proposals aren’t new. In the late 1970s, Robert Cook, a US inventor, patented an engine that supposedly transformed centrifugal power into linear movement. Then, in the early 2000s, British inventor Roger Shawyer proposed the EM drive, which he claimed may convert trapped microwaves into thrust. Neither idea has been efficiently demonstrated and each are extensively assumed to be unimaginable, as a consequence of violation of the conservation of momentum, a core bodily legislation.

Martin Tajmar at the Dresden University of Technology in Germany, who has carried out assessments on the EM Drive, believes the helical engine will most likely endure the identical downside. “All inertial propulsion systems – to my knowledge – never worked in a friction-free environment,” he says. This machine makes use of particular relativity, in contrast to the others, which complicates the image, he says, however “unfortunately there is always action-reaction”.

Burns has labored on his design in non-public, with none sponsorship from NASA, and he admits his idea is massively inefficient. However, he says there’s potential to reap a lot of the vitality that the accelerator loses in warmth and radiation. He additionally suggests ways in which momentum could possibly be conserved, resembling in the spin of the accelerated ions.

“I know that it risks being right up there with the EM drive and cold fusion,” he says. “But you have to be prepared to be embarrassed. It is very difficult to invent something that is new under the sun and actually works.”

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