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Science & Technology

'Helical engine' could reach relativistic speeds

By T.K. Randall
October 16, 2019 · Comment icon 13 comments

Could the helical engine be the future of spaceflight ? Image Credit: NASA
NASA engineer David Burns has developed a concept for a new drive capable of reaching distant solar systems.
Traversing the vast distances between stars is undoubtedly a major problem - even reaching our nearest neighbor with today's technology would take thousands of years.

But what if it was possible to travel such distances in a fraction of the time ?

Enter David Burns - a NASA engineer with a concept for a new type of propulsion system that can theoretically reach 99% of the speed of light without needing any sort of propellant.

Known as the 'helical engine', this exotic drive works by exploiting the change in mass that occurs at relativistic speeds as described in Einstein's special theory of relativity.
The idea has drawn comparisons to aerospace engineer Roger Shawyer's controversial EmDrive.

"The engine accelerates ions confined in a loop to moderate relativistic speeds, and then varies their velocity to make slight changes to their mass," Burns writes. "The engine then moves ions back and forth along the direction of travel to produce thrust."

"The engine has no moving parts other than ions traveling in a vacuum line, trapped inside electric and magnetic fields."

While the drive only exists on paper at the moment, the idea behind it is certainly interesting.

Whether it will actually work in practice however remains to be seen.

Source: Science Alert | Comments (13)

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Recent comments on this story
Comment icon #4 Posted by bison 5 years ago
Leaving aside the fact that it's massively inefficient, if it could work, there is another problem, as there always has been with simple reactionless drives.  The speed, and so the mass, increases on one side of the loop, on the way from the slow end to the fast end of the device. It decreases on the other side, going back to the slow end. The two sides will balance, in terms of speed and mass. If this is a continuous process, the device won't even wobble back and forth, as some reactionless drives do. There will be no net movement through space.  
Comment icon #5 Posted by kewlscot 5 years ago
Be better to have a tea drive, stir your tea to go faster and slower to slow down. As bison says, every action has an equal opposite reaction. It'll never work :)
Comment icon #6 Posted by AllPossible 5 years ago
What happens when you can't divert from some asteroid. Light speed sounds awesome, even 10% of light speed is 67,000,000 mph. Space travel is alot more difficult then people think. It's dangerous & fascinating at the same time.
Comment icon #7 Posted by Waspie_Dwarf 5 years ago
You are making a massively incorrect assumption here, namely that mass increases in a linear manner to velocity. It doesn't. According to relativity mass increases exponentially to velocity. Above about 0.6c, where relativistic effects become noticeable,  a small increase in velocity will lead to a large increase in mass. As Einstein's most famous equation says: E=mc2, hence there is much more energy provided by the particles in one direction than in the other... your balance does not exist. This is precisely why the article states that the principle doesn't follow Newtonian physics but does ... [More]
Comment icon #8 Posted by DieChecker 5 years ago
If this could be manufactured, it would make exploring the solar system humanly possible. And asteroid mining might be easier also.
Comment icon #9 Posted by mdbuilder 5 years ago
As far as I can tell, a magnetism based propulsion system is the only one that starts off with self-impelled motion.
Comment icon #10 Posted by paperdyer 5 years ago
You'd still have the "not ageing" issue relative to the Earth, correct? You'd age a little while the Eath ages more, right?
Comment icon #11 Posted by DieChecker 5 years ago
Relativity hasnt changed, so yeah, time would pass slower on a ship at relativistic speeds.
Comment icon #12 Posted by Jon the frog 5 years ago
Choosing to go in interstellar travel mean that you leave behind what you let behind...One way colonization and exploration until death or fruition.  
Comment icon #13 Posted by NotAlien7 5 years ago
This is my theory, my idea NASA you better check my post right here on UNEXPLAINED is good enough.  Check my post here then contact me . I have several versions of this idea and I come up with it years ago.

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