New NASA Helical Engine Could Reach “Close to Light Speed?”

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New Particle Accelerator Helical Engine Proposed by NASA Could Have Us Saying “Warp Speed, Mr. Sulu!”

An engineer at NASA proposed a new accelerator for spacecraft called the “helical engine,” and they say it could potentially reach “close to light speed.”

The engineer, Dr. David Burns from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, came up with an out-of-the-box way to move ships through space at high speeds. His idea? A giant engine shaped like a helix that uses a particle accelerator for power. He calls the device – which is still very much an idea on paper – a “helical engine.”

What is a Helical Engine?

Dr. Burns proposed his idea in a paper he published on NASA’s website.

This in-space engine could be used for long-term satellite station-keeping without refuelling

Dr David Burns

He continues, “It could also propel spacecraft across interstellar distances, reaching close to the speed of light.”

The basic premise for the idea rests on Newton’s third law of motion—for every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction. The science is a bit hard to explain, but I’ll give it a go after you watch this awesome video:

I love science teachers like this!

Did you see the experiment with the cars and the spring? Well, that’s kind of how Dr. Burns’ idea works, except he wants to do it with a particle accelerator. The reason it may work is because—you guessed it—Einstein. That’s right, it’s Einstein to the rescue again, with that old E=MC2 bit. 

If you remember, the closer an object gets to the speed of light the more mass it gains. So by using particles instead of weights, each time the particles hit the front of the engine, they’ll have more mass than on the way back. This means that the increased mass at the front will cause forward momentum—in theory.

Skeptics Abound, Of Course  

In the scientific community, any time you propose something so radically new, you’re going to draw two things: attention and criticism. Dr. Burns has certainly received both. After all, the idea that after around three centuries of scientific thought someone could discover something completely new is not likely. However, they said the giant squid didn’t exist. Until it did. Dr. Burns seems very calm about all of that and prepared to handle whatever criticism comes his way. In an interview with New Scientist, he said, “I’m comfortable with throwing it out there. If someone says it doesn’t work, I’ll be the first to say, it was worth a shot.”

It remains to be seen whether such a project will see the light of day anytime soon, but the idea is tantalizing, to be sure.

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Brandon Humphreys

Brandon Humphreys

I'm a wizard. I write stuff and it goes from my head into yours - Magic! Apart from that, I am the Senior Editor for Space Porn, a veteran, a rock guitarist, and a teacher.

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