David Burns is an engineer at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, Alabama, who believes he has invented a fuel-less rocket engine that could possibly take us far into the galaxy. This engine works on a principle that breaks the laws of physics, yet makes slight sense if we consider parts Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and Newton’s Laws of Motion.
The objective of this paper is to introduce and examine a unique engine that uses a closed-cycle propellant.David Burns
Working of a Fuel-less Rocket Engine
The working principle of the fuel-less rocket engine (helical engine) is described in two parts: Newton’s Third Law of Motion and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. The engine works by having a “ring” sprung in one direction of a “box.” This controlled motion will make the ring recoil in the opposite direction once it hits the other side of the box.
As “every object has an equal and opposite reaction,” the box will also recoil in the direction that the ring initially moved. As the ring approaches the first side again for the next collision, the recoil causes the box to move back in the opposite direction.
This controlled oscillation will repeat, allowing the box also to oscillate.
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Won’t the box oscillate around the same point?
Yes, and no. This is where David Burns incorporates Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to make his fuel-less rocket engine come to life. In normal physics, the box and ring will continue to oscillate around one point from a stationary frame perspective, until the total energy of the system becomes 0.
When a rocket is traveling near the speed of light, the ring will increase in mass as it approaches the front of the box, according to Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. As the ring recoils backward, its relative motion is less compared to when it was moving forward (as the ring and box system is collectively moving forward in the rocket). Due to this fact, the ring will reduce in mass when it hits the back of the box, resulting in less loss in momentum.
Thereby, the ring will produce more momentum in the forward direction, and less when hitting in the backward direction. The net force is in the forward direction, explaining the principle of how a fuel-less rocket engine will be propelled.
Though explained with a ring and a box, the engine will actually use particle accelerators (box) and ion particles (ring).
Newton’s laws of motion will be broken
Of course, though we based our initial explanation based on Newton’s Third Law of Motion, that was during the initial phase of the rocket engine. As the fuel-less rocket engine reaches closer to the speed of light, the reaction is still opposite but not “equal.” This partially breaks Newton’s Third Law of Motion.
However, it is a universal fact that the laws of physics change when it comes to the speed of light. A lot is still unknown about how a light-speed traveling object will affect itself and its surroundings.
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Drawbacks of the Fuel-less Rocket Engine
There is still a lot of difficulty in bringing such an engine to life. For it to work efficiently, the fuel-less rocket engine would have relay its working principle completely on Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, which describes we have to be near the speed of light for this to work. Even somewhat close to the speed of light would not give the astronomical thrust that we would expect from a futuristic rocket engine like this.
I know that it risks being right up there with the EM drive and cold fusion, but you have to be prepared to be embarrassed. It is very difficult to invent something that is new under the sun and actually works.David Burns to New Scientist
Time of acceleration
However, David Burns estimates that this engine will be able to provide thrust up to 99 percent of the speed of light, keeping intact Einstein’s laws. Still, the rate of increase of acceleration increases with the speed of this engine, thereby it is hard to predict how long it will take to accelerate to that speed. Without computer modeling the system, even though the rate of change of acceleration increases exponentially, it is impossible to predict the time it will take to reach a point where considerable change in acceleration occurs. It may be a few days or a few years.
Controlling this fuel-less rocket engine
The fuel-less rocket engine works on weight and motion principles and doesn’t require a nozzle to output thrust. The engine could lie completely inside the aircraft, using the push and pull motion to propel it forward. Due to the fact that there is no nozzle outputting thrust, we cannot control the direction of the thrust vector of the engine. While in use, the motion will probably have to be uni-directional. It is also unlikely that we can turn on and off the engine to our will. Once switched-off, we may have to wait a long time to regenerate that thrust again.
Size of the particle accelerator
The size of this fuel-less rocket engine will be large, demanding a length of 200m and a width of 12m to be substantial enough to work. That is very long, compared to the height of the world’s tallest rocket: the Saturn V at 110m. The engine will probably have to be constructed in space, along with the entire vehicle of the engine as well.
Maintenance of the electronics
The fuel-less rocket engine will also require a friction-less vacuum, meaning it must stay outside the pressurized cabin. Regular maintenance will be expected with such an advanced engine, due to its sensitive electronics and working principle. Maintenance of the engine will require regular spacewalks, which might not be possible at the high speeds that David Burns promises it will achieve.
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Will this Fuel-less Rocket Engine be possible?
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.David Burns to New Scientist
Will it be possible to construct a fuel-less rocket engine? With so many questions unanswered, it is hard to describe how viable this research could translate to real-life. All that is certain is that we should continue to explore and innovate, in order to become a “multi-planetary species.”
David Burns’ research paper can be found here.