Thursday, October 29, 2009

Propulsion Physics and the future ahead

I recently stumbled on a 2004 presentation by Marc Millis while doing some searches and is well put together. Unfortunetly NASA's former Breakthrough Propulsion Physics (BPP) Project (wiki article here) funding got cancelled a few years ago and today I read in Paul Gilster's Centauri Dreams outlining a report which recommends that NASA reinstate the (also cancelled!) NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts in one form or another, no doubt there are many reasons why they both got cancelled (which I think cancelling BPP was a big mistake regardless of NASA's new lunar or otherwise objectives considering the already minimal funding it received and the great job Marc and others put into it) however unfortunetly this means today that there are no substantially funded organisations dedicated to organising and researching advanced concepts or potential physics breakthroughs that could lead to making interstellar travel practical, economical and a viable proposition so we wait and see what mainstream Physics and individual researchers come up next.

Last night I watched the awesome Ares I-X launch and this is only the little puppy version of the big one they'll be using to launch crew to the Moon (however I'm reading in today's paper that the Moon program funding, yes you guessed could be cancelled!). No doubt money's tight for everyone at the moment but when I see how public money is wasted these days on other things with questional benefits to the public, I wonder...

I've outlined in a previous post why it is important for humans to settle on another planet (preferably on another Earth-like planet which means an interstellar journey to other star systems) and rockets just won't do the job (and are expensive, the Ares launch cost $445m according to the today's paper article).

So it's back to Propulsion Physics and first principles (or revised first principles?). There's no need for me to reiterate on Marc's presentation but the most important points are on p8 and p34:

  1. Mass: Discover new propulsion methods that eliminate (or dramatically reduce) the need for propellant.
  2. Speed: Discover how to circumvent existing limits (light-speed) to dramatically reduce transit times.
  3. Energy: Discover new energy methods to power these propulsion devices.

"These goals are THE breakthroughs needed to conquer the presently impossible ambition of human interstellar exploration."

I'll talk about the Physics of these 3 points in a future post, what striked me in this presentation and what I wanted to mention in this post was on the last page:

"Science community does not address propulsion opportunities, but instead seeks a Theory of Everything. A propulsion focus increases options."
This is a good point, rephrased the Science community seeks to complete the Physics cube below:


Top right corner specifically. This is good as a Relativistic Quantum Theory of Gravity could lead to BPP and answer many unknowns in Physics and the Universe. However only seeking a unified theory of Physics isn't a good approach in my view. String Theorists have spent the last 25 years searching for their unified theory with so far a dead end (Peter Woit's book Not Even Wrong is a good read on this) and makes no new predictions in Physics that are verifiable and testable with the Large Hadron Collider. Even Einstein in his later years searched a unified theory of Physics to no avail. As pointed out earlier the Propulsion focus shouldn't be left out in the mainstream Physics research community. I'm not saying that all research into String Theories for eg should be abandoned (although myself I think it's a dead end) however there needs to be a more balanced focus to propulsion in mainstream Physics research, sometimes approaching a problem from a different angle can lead to productive results and in my view this is why cancelling the BPP Program at NASA was a huge mistake (where they should be leading the world by example). Practical and economical Interstellar flight may turn out to be impossible however while seeking solutions (as history shows in Physics) sometimes people stumble on other unexpected Physics.

What is the current state of affairs? As the BPP site mentions, "No breakthroughs appear imminent." There are many theories floating around however, either the theories haven't stood up to experiment or are inconclusive or there is no funding to test the theories put forth. Out of all the "crackpot theories" submitted each year, if one turns out to be correct, then this could change everything. There needs to be a funded program (like the BPP Project) that investigates and manages all this. For those who wish to dig deeper into all this a very good starting point is the following book: Frontiers of Propulsion Science. For those wondering checkout: What would a relativistic interstellar traveller see? I'll finish this post with a paragraph I like by Walter Drösher and Jochem Hauser in their paper (although I got a bit lost in their Extended Heim Theory and don't quite understand it):

1 comment:

  1. ths is very intresting....shouldnt we b exceedin in get the funding u have to ferst get the pupblic/youth intrested in space tech advansment.. thn thr would b a demand or presuer on the govment to increas the to do tht u have to use entertainment..program bout space travel hu..
    Question hw do gt in to Quantem mechanices???