Futuristic propulsion drives that send spacecraft streaking across the screen on "Star Wars" movies may leap from science fiction to scientific fact in the not-so-distant future.
Scientists and engineers at NASAs Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., are developing propulsion technologies closely akin to the "hyperdrives" of "Star Wars" fame.
"Many of todays technological realities originally belonged to science fiction," said Garry Lyles, manager of NASAs Advanced Space Transportation Program at the Marshall Center. "Its not unusual for science fiction to become reality, and its exciting to see that transformation now in the space transportation arena."
The "hyperdrive" in "Star Wars" gets its punch from fusion an exotic propulsion technology being developed at Marshall. Fusion combines two or more atoms to form one heavier atom, releasing a tremendous amount of energy which could be used to drive a spacecraft. The energy efficiency of fusion compares to a car travelling 7,000 miles on one gallon of gas.
"Prodigious amounts of energy will be required to go to the outer planets, let alone other star systems," said George Schmidt, deputy manager of Marshalls Propulsion Research Center. "Achieving the level of technology portrayed in Star Wars is quite a challenge. It will require very powerful fission, fusion or antimatter-driven rockets for rapid travel within interplanetary space."
Schmidt said it will also require overcoming the physical limitations of space itself in order to travel faster than the speed of light. "Were examining a variety of propulsion technologies which will help us conquer the incredible challenges of interplanetary and even interstellar travel," said Schmidt. "Were convinced that several of these technologies will likely transform the space travel seen in sci-fi movies into real-life experience."
Marshall also is experimenting with futuristic concepts of launching rockets to space on laser beams and propelling sails through space with sunbeams just as the wind pushes sailboats on Earth. "Laser propulsion and antimatter have long been the stuff of science fiction," said Lyles, "and now were experimenting with them as viable options for space travel."
Because of its superior energy density, antimatter annihilation is often suggested as the ultimate source of energy for propulsion. Antimatter is identical to matter except that the electrical charges are reversed. A proton is positive, whereas an antiproton is negative. When regular matter collides with antimatter, they annihilate and produce phenomenal energy. In an antimatter engine, the charged particles would be channeled out the back of a spacecraft to produce thrust. "A little bit of antimatter goes a long way," said Schmidt.
Marshall Center engineers are currently building a High Performance Antimatter Trap, which will store antiprotons for a 10-day lifetime. The trap will be used in future antimatter experiments for space propulsion of the 21st century.
So, when will real-life adventure in distant galaxies premiere?
"Right now, no one knows which of the technologies were developing will open the space frontier," said Lyles.
"What we do know is that we must push technology to achieve breakthroughs that are necessary to travel beyond our solar system," said Lyles. "I believe that some of the technologies were working today could make it happen in the next century."
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