NASA Helical Engine
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NASA engineer’s ‘helical engine’ could reach 99% the speed of light, may violate the laws of physics

NASA’s “helical engine,” which may travel at 99% the speed of light, could defy the rules of physics.

Our desire to go to every location and see everything is a challenge when it comes to exploring space. a serious issue. Well, it’s space. It’s far too massive. It would take us decades to reach our closest neighboring star, even if we traveled at the fastest rate the universe permits.

Finding answers to significant issues is a different human motivation, however. David Burns, a NASA engineer, has been spending his free time working on it. According to him, he has developed an engine design that, in theory, could accelerate a spacecraft to 99 percent the speed of light without the need for fuel.

On paper, it operates by taking advantage of how mass may change at incredible speeds, or those that are near the speed of light in a vacuum. He has released it to the NASA Technical Reports Server under the name “Helical Engine.” A professional evaluation has not yet been done.

Naturally, this study has generated a lot of hype, on par with what was experienced in the early days of the EM Drive. Even some headlines suggested that the engine may “break the rules of physics.”

Although this idea is intriguing, physics won’t suddenly change as a result of it any time soon.

Burns uses the image of a box with a weight inside that is strung on a line and is being bounced back and forth by springs at each end as an example to illustrate his notion. In a vacuum, like space, this would have the effect of making the whole box move while making the weight seem to be stabilized around it.

Overall, the box would continue to wiggle in the same location, but if the weight’s mass increased just in one direction, it would produce more thrust in that direction.

The conservation of momentum principle says that a system’s momentum stays the same if nothing else changes it. So, this shouldn’t be a very likely thing to happen.

But! There is a weakness in special relativity. Salutations to special relativity! Special relativity states that when an object moves closer to the speed of light, it gains mass. As a result, if you swap out the weight for ions and the box for a loop, the ions should theoretically move more quickly at one end and less quickly at the other.

Burns’ drive, however, doesn’t have a single closed loop. The term “helical engine” refers to its helical shape, which resembles a stretched spring.

“Ions are trapped in a loop and are accelerated to modest relativistic speeds by the engine. Their mass is then somewhat altered by varying their velocity. The engine then alternately transports ions in the direction of movement to generate thrust. In his abstract, he wrote:

The only moving components in the engine are ions that are trapped in magnetic and electric fields and traveling down a vacuum line.

Right, that sounds extremely cool. And in theory, it is. But there are huge practical issues with it.

The helical chamber, as reported by New Scientist, has to be somewhat large. To be exact, it is 12 meters (40 feet) in diameter and around 200 meters (656 feet) long.

Furthermore, in order to create 1 newton of thrust, 165 megawatts of energy would be required. A power plant of such size would be needed to provide the force necessary to accelerate one kilogram of mass by one meter per second squared. So there is a lot of input and very little output. It is very ineffective.

However, in the void of space, It could really work. According to Burns, if given enough time and energy, the engine itself might reach 99 percent the speed of light.

And now for the second item. More than a few humans, though not all of us, have a strong desire to go to other stars. We may never get there. The “may” becomes a “certainly” if we never even attempt to consider it. What does it mean that you always miss the shots you don’t take?

In his presentation, Burns mentions the issue of efficiency and adds that his work hasn’t been evaluated by specialists and that there could be arithmetic mistakes. The specifications for a fully operational space travel engine are not precisely available here.

We do, however, have some preliminary work that may be used in the creation of such an engine. We are living in a galaxy-sized fantasy.

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Written by Alex Bruno

Freelance space writer Alex Bruno specializes in covering China's quickly expanding space industry. In 2021, he started writing for SpaceXMania. He also contributes to publications including SpaceNews, IEEE Spectrum, National Geographic, Sky & Telescope, and New Scientist. When Alex was a small child, he first experienced the space bug after seeing Voyager photographs of alien planets in our solar system. When not in space, Alex likes to go trail jogging in the Finnish countryside.

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