“Flash drive” (Reactionless space drives)


Today we will look at an idea which marries lovers of conspiracy theories with aficionados of science fiction masquerading as emerging technology. It centers on a purported ability of humans to travel far deeper into space than they ever have.

Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning tackled this issue and he noted that sizable limits that are placed on such a notion. Flying in space, he said, requires reaction mass. In other words, to change a spacecraft’s direction of movement, those on board must expel mass in the opposite direction. It can either be a lot of mass that astronauts push off from gently, or it can be a little mass which they use to push off from aggressively. In either case, Newton’s Third Law of Motion comes into play: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

As Mankind has yet to make it to a neighboring planet, there’s little reason to contemplate spacefaring beyond the solar system or especially the Milky Way. But there are some that do boldly go where many man has gone before: Offering baseless charges of a cover-up.

These types are motivated less by a spirit of adventure and exploration and more out of the chance to offer self-congratulation and to get excited about a nefarious plot. If they were intrigued by possible advances space travel, they would be reading astronomy magazines, pushing for funding, and contemplating a return trip to the moon or an inaugural trip to Mars. Instead, they salivate over winning a game of technological hide-and-seek and vacationing in the Andromeda vicinity.

Travel to this star system would require a massive amount of acceleration in order to overcome the literally astronomical distance. If deep space pioneers were to expel that much reaction mass, physics would require them to start the trip with such a quantity of reaction mass that the amount of inertia would mean the spaceship would never budge.

The type of space travel depicted in science fiction often employs a space drive, the name for a hypothetical reactionless drive system. In the real world, there are proposals, patents, and prototypes for these devices, all of which fail owing to the aforementioned Newtonian physics.

But here are a look at a few of them. There are EM Drives, which depend on microwaves or other radio waves bouncing around a closed chamber, which is designed so that pressure on the bouncing waves will be greater on one interior surface than on the opposite one, thus pushing the whole system.

Occasionally, a prototype of such a device will be credited with managing a very short positive thrust, which in theory could be refined and improved upon until extreme space travel is realized. However, even these modest gains have always been proven false during replication attempts. According to Dunning, assorted measurement and experiment errors have caused the false positives.

Next we have the Gyroscopic Inertial Thruster, supposedly based on centrifugal force. The idea here is that the ships carrying future astronauts or space tourists would employ the Thruster, which would swing faster when going in the direction of intended travel. This would fail because any changes to the force needed speed up or slow down the spaceship would be met with equal and opposite reactions. The net will always be zero.

There is also the Dean Drive, a 1950s device whose inventor tellingly never let anyone examine or test it. The Drive would gradually scoot across a table when activated, though observers concluded any movement was just the result of friction and the device’s vibrations.

Finally, we consider the Alcubierre Drive, which is described as being akin to Star Trek’s warp drive. Its inventor, physicist Miguel Alcubierre Moya, claims to have based it on physics and kept it consistent with Einstein’s field equations.

Alcubierre said his device works by coopting a virtual wave of spacetime, thereby constantly shrinking the space in front of it and expanding the space behind it. The problem, Dunning said, is that ,”Doing this would require a region with lower density than an absolute vacuum, a concept that works only if one has ‘exotic matter,’ a placeholder term for any hypothetical matter with properties that deviate from the known types of matter.’”

So Moya is explaining one remote hypothetical with a second remote hypothetical. And even if exotic matter were real and accessible, any Flash Gordon wannabe would need to procure impossibly high amounts of it.


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