Tuesday, February 23, 2010

New Space Engines May Trade Fuel For Photons

From Popular Mechanics:

Interplanetary travel may soon be powered by propulsion systems lifted from sci-fi novels, as researchers reach for faster, lighter space engines.

Chemical combustion engines are an unbeatable technology for escaping Earth’s atmosphere and gravitational pull. In space, however, these rockets are inefficient—they burn through huge quantities of fuel while generating more thrust than necessary. That’s why researchers are increasingly turning to nonchemical propulsion systems, which could drastically lighten spacecraft while achieving higher speeds. Some of the ideas being researched, like antimatter engines, depend on established physics but go far beyond current technology. “Someone’s got to think beyond the obvious,” says Marc Millis, a propulsion physicist at NASA’s Glenn Research Center. “You have enough other people in the world doing the next obvious thing. By reaching beyond that, you can discover the breakthroughs other folks aren’t even looking for, and change everything.”

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