Set the controls for the stars

Set the controls for the stars

Interstellar travel is now possible

Gwynne Dyer

Want to be cheered up at the end of this benighted year? Okay, how’s this? It’s starting to look like interstellar travel may be possible in a time frame that would be manageable for human beings.

No, it’s not a cure for cancer. But we know that we are bound to find that eventually, so long as our civilisation is not destroyed by war or global warming or a random asteroid strike. Until very recently, our understanding of science told us that travel even to the nearest stars will never be possible.

That may still be true, for the answers are not all in yet. But last April the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration gave James Woodward and the Space Studies Institute a Phase 2 grant under the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts programme.

They got a Phase 1 grant in 2017 to work on their proposed space drive. They made enough progress to keep NASA happy and themselves credible, and they have now been funded to test new designs that increase the thrust produced by their Mach Effect Gravity Assist (MEGA) drive. If that scales up satisfactorily, we will one day be able to build spaceships that go to the stars.

I must admit that I really enjoyed writing that last line, for all my life I have been told that interstellar travel is only science fiction. Real space flight is ruled by Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s classic rocket equation of 1903, which says that a rocket can get into space by expelling enough of its mass (fuel) at high velocity, but also says that the payload and/or the speed is strictly limited.

More payload or more speed is possible, but only by burning more fuel. You must carry that fuel all the way from launch, which makes the vehicle heavier, which requires more fuel, and so on.

The ‘tyranny of the rocket equation’ is what makes space flight so expensive, and interstellar travel by rocket impossible. For a manned spaceship to reach the nearest star (Proxima Centauri, 4.2 light years), slow down again when it gets there, and do it all within one human lifetime, it would have to burn an amount of fuel roughly equal to the total mass of the Sun.

The fuel is the problem, not the distance. If you didn’t have to bring the fuel with you, sending a 400 kg. payload to Proxima Centauri and putting it in orbit around the most Earth-like planet would require a few years’ acceleration at a modest 1g, a maximum speed of 0.4c (four-tenths of light-speed, so no major relativistic effects), and a few years’ deceleration at the far end. It would arrive in around 20 years.

All recent proposals for interstellar flight have therefore abandoned rocketry and assumed ultra-light vehicles that carry large sails and are pushed by Earth-based lasers or by the solar wind. Two problems: the push dies away before they have travelled even one light-year, and they have no way of stopping at their destination.

So along comes Dr James Woodward, who published his first peer-reviewed article on the Mach effect in 1990, and Dr Heidi Fearn, his colleague at California State University, Fullerton. They worked on the theoretical physics of the Mach effect, they built miniature models of a space drive that doesn’t need to burn a propellant and tested them, and gradually the space community began to take them seriously.

NASA is certainly taking them seriously now. Contrary to what some of their critics claim, what they are doing does not violate fundamental physical laws like ‘every action must have an equal and opposite reaction’. However, it does run contrary to our daily experience of those laws by exploiting some of the more arcane aspects of quantum physics.

I’d explain the Mach effect in greater detail, but I barely understand it myself. Suffice it to say that their MEGA drive uses electricity to produce mass fluctuations within a block of metal, which in turn propels the drive forward without burning fuel. What is it pushing against? All the rest of the mass in the universe.

This isn’t a sure thing. There is still controversy over whether the ‘push’ is real, or just an electrical or magnetic effect that creates a false positive. But NASA is willing to spend money on it, and a lot of other scientists are now following up on Woodward’s and Fearn’s work.

It would open the doors to the rest of the universe for us. Exploration, colonisation, unlimited resources, perhaps contact with other intelligences – all of that becomes much more possible than it would be if we must remain forever confined to this one small planetary system. And of course it would make getting around this system a great deal easier: the Moon in four hours, Mars in 2-5 days, Jupiter in 7-8 days.

How’s that for (potentially) good news?

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Photo courtesy iflscience.com

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A man wearing a face mask to help curb the spread of COVID-19 walks in downtown Vancouver, B.C., Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020. The use of masks is mandatory in indoor public and retail spaces in the province. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
104 new COVID-19 cases in Interior Health

IH is reporting the new numbers since Friday, Nov. 20

The City of Cranbrook is gearing up winter plowing operations. Townsman file photo.
City gearing up winter snow plow operations

Winter has arrived in Cranbrook. Following recent snowfalls in the region, the… Continue reading

Pictured is the Cranbrook gravel pit, located between two graveyards near the public works yard. This is where two lost kids were located by a Salvador Ready Mix driver on Thursday, November 19, 2020. (Corey Bullock/Cranbrook Townsman file)
Two lost kids find their way home thanks to Salvador Ready Mix driver

The driver found the children wandering near the gravel pits in Cranbrook

Interior Health is reporting a potential COVID-19 exposure at St. Mary’s Catholic Independent School last week from Nov. 17-19.
Potential COVID-19 exposure reported at St. Mary’s Catholic Independent School

Interior Health is reporting potential COVID-19 exposures at St. Mary’s Catholic Independent… Continue reading

Planting whitebark pine seedlings. Photo courtesy of Randy Moody.
Kimberley’s Randy Moody on the challenges and triumphs of the endangered whitebark pine

Randy Moody, president of the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation of Canada (WPEFC)… Continue reading

People wearing face masks to help curb the spread of COVID-19 cross a street in downtown Vancouver, on Sunday, November 22, 2020. The use of masks is mandatory in indoor public and retail spaces in the province. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. reports 17 COVID deaths, 1,933 new cases as hospitalizations surge over the weekend

There are 277 people in hospital, of whom 59 are in ICU or critical care

An aerial shot of Cedar Valley Lodge this past August, LNG Canada’s newest accommodation for workers at the project site in Kitimat. This is where several employees are isolating after a COVID-19 outbreak was declared last Thursday (Nov. 19). (Photo courtesy of LNG Canada)
Forty-one positive COVID-19 cases associated with the LNG Canada site outbreak in Kitimat

Thirty-four of the 41 cases remain active, according to Northern Health

7-year-old Mackenzie Hodge from Penticton sent a hand-written letter to premiere John Horgan asking if she’d be able to see her elf, Ralph under the new coronavirus restrictions. (John Horgan / Twitter)
Elf on the shelf an acceptable house guest, B.C. premier tells Penticton girl

A 7-year-old from Penticton penned a letter asking if she’d be allowed to see her elf this year

Workers arrive at the Lynn Valley Care Centre seniors home, in North Vancouver, B.C., on Saturday, March 14, 2020. It was the site of Canada’s first COVID-19 outbreak in a long-term care facility. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Rapid tests ‘not a panacea’ for care homes, Dr. Bonnie Henry says

B.C. lacks capacity for daily tests of thousands of workers

(Delta Police Department photo)
Cannabis edibles found in Halloween bag lead B.C. police to illegal lab

Delta police arrested a man and a woman while executing a warrant at a residential property Nov. 20

A woman being arrested at a Kelowna Value Village after refusing to wear a mask on Nov. 22.(@Jules50278750/Twitter)
VIDEO: Woman arrested for refusing to wear mask at Kelowna Value Village

RCMP claims the woman was uncooperative with officers, striking them a number of times and screaming

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

B.C. Liberal MLA Shirley Bond questions NDP government ministers in the B.C. legislature, Feb. 19, 2020. (Hansard TV)
Cabinet veteran Shirley Bond chosen interim leader of B.C. Liberals

28-member opposition prepares for December legislature session

Most Read