NASA – Helical Engine

Kshin Patel - 1A Biomedical
Posted on: November 14, 2019

Dr. David M. Burns who works for NASA at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, USA, is the mind behind the idea that it may be possible to create an engine that has the capacity to travel at close to 99% the speed of light; that’s nearly 296,794,533 metres every second. Burns states in his paper published on the online NASA database, titled “Helical Engine,” that the only moving part of the engine will be the travelling ions that are trapped inside electric and magnetic fields as a part of a closed-loop vacuum.

Burns describes how the idea of creating such a powerful engine came to him. He explains in an interview with science newspaper, New Scientist, about taking advantage of a possible glitch in Einstein’s theory of relativity. This allows him to manipulate the speed of the ions while they are in the closed vacuum as they are accelerated to the speed of light. When they accelerate to a relative speed and their velocity is slightly manipulated, the momentum of the ions will change as a result.

To better visualize Burns’s idea, he says to imagine a box containing a rod with a ring that can slide back-and-forth along the rod on a frictionless surface. Due to Newton’s third law of motion, if a spring pushes the ring to the other end of the box, the ring will push forward, and the box will want to move in the opposite direction. Burns suggests that if the mass of the ring were greater when sliding in one direction versus another, the action force would be greater than the reaction force, resulting in the box accelerating forward. This is possible due to Einstein’s theory of relativity implemented for particle movement in an accelerator. He says that as an object moves closer to the speed of light, it will gain mass.

Although it sounds possible to make with the right tools, if such an engine were made and tested, many hypothesize that it would take a long time to generate enough force to thrust an object forward at such a high speed. According to the interview in New Scientist, a two hundred metre-long helical engine would generate enough force as someone who is typing on a keyboard. Burns said he is “comfortable enough throwing [the idea] out there,” and “if someone says it doesn’t work, I’ll be the first one to say it was worth a shot.”

The ultimate goal of an engine this powerful is to be able to expand the life of satellites in space. It will allow for an engine that is capable of running for a longer period of time at a higher speed. Although we still don’t have the resources to be able to create a model and test the concept of a helical engine, the idea that something so powerful could be created can open a whole new door of possibilities when it comes to space travel in the future.

For more information on the Helical Engine, Burns’s paper is available on NASA’s server as a PDF copy at the following source: https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/20190029294.pdf.

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