Saturday, March 16, 2013

Is Gravity Control Propulsion viable? Part 1

In 2013 the answer is no. It seems that our reliance on chemical rocketry to get hardware into orbit will be with us for a long time to come. Private space companies are making Low Earth Orbit more accessible and cheaper however the fundamental high cost of launching hardware into orbit (between $20000/Kg to $50000/Kg depending on the launch platform) with its limitations for deep space exploration and restrictions to small payloads will still be there. Getting hardware out of Earth's gravity well only 150 Km above the surface requires vehicles with high thrust (rockets) which can expel large amounts of energy in a short period of time to overcome Earth's relentless gravitational pull. Rockets provide enough escape speed (11.2 Km/s) to reach a stable orbit. The alternatives outlined in a previous post ie the space elevator, external nuclear pulse propulsion and the Skylon Project all have some shortcomings. As usual funding is a big problem for research and whether they one day come to realisation seems to depend on economics,  politicians or the profit potential for private investors.

Can we one day replace rockets with an alternative (less expensive) propulsion method? (Photo: NASA)
Been looking at other alternatives such as Gravity Control Propulsion. If the weight problem can be reduced or eliminated altogether then this would change things. This would be a game changer for space exploration but is the concept viable or simply fantasy? Physics at the moment tells us that there is no means to shield an object from gravity or even control gravity for propulsion purposes. In a scene in the latest StarTrek movie, the Enterprise is built on the ground in a shipyard. This solves many problems with cost and practicalities of building the starship instead of assembling it together in space, however one begs the question: when the starship is finished, how do they get this big chunk of hardware into orbit? In the StarTrek universe, have they found a means to circumvent the effects of gravity? In the movie one doesn't see the crew floating around on the bridge of the Enterprise when galloping the galaxy as well, have they developed a means to create artificial gravity deck plating? Recreating Earth's gravity environment in the Starship is important, it solves many health issues for the astronauts who would otherwise be exposed to a zero-gee environment for long periods, not to mention doing basic tasks easier (space radiation exposure is another problem I won't discuss here). 
Can a Starship be built and launched from the ground? (Photo: StarTrek)
Mastery of Gravity Control Propulsion implies a deep understanding of the physics of gravity and the origin of weight on mass. So where are we up to? We have General Relativity, all experiments agree with it so far. Problem is GR explains very well how mass moves in spacetime but not the why. It is not a quantum theory of gravity and currently there are no such proven models. More specifically it does not explain for eg the dynamics of the quantum vacuum near mass and how mass interacts with the dynamic quantum vacuum. Why does mass affect spacetime? These are some of the questions that need to be answered. Closely related, what is the origin of inertia? Is Mach's principle a local or universal effect?
Let's have a look at several papers that touch on these topics starting first with Marc Millis on  Assessing Hypothetical Gravity Control Propulsion. The paper refers to hypothetical gravity propulsion as a propellantless vehicle which can manipulate gravity, inertia or spacetime. The primary goal is to eliminate the need for propellant to get the vehicle into orbit. A space drive is defined as "an idealised form of propulsion where the fundamental properties of matter and spacetime are used to create propulsion forces anywhere in space without having to carry and expel a reaction mass". The space drive would convert potential energy into kinetic energy for this purpose. The paper also compares the energy efficiencies of the hypothetical space drive compared to the conventional rocket equation, these are very preliminary calculations. It is noted that rockets can only levitate (hovering with no change in altitude) an object for a short period of time until their propellant runs out. The ability of a vehicle to hover indefinitely would be a big advantage. So Marc has outlined what is meant by hypothetical gravity propulsion. The elimination of the need for propellant is the big advantage here.

So in 2013 are there any loose ends in General Relativity? According to Schiller's Strand Model of Physics which looks promising, one of his many predictions include "No deviations from special or general relativity appear for any measurable energy scale. No doubly or deformed special relativity arises in nature." Let's have a look at the paper from Orfeu Bertolami et al. on General Theory of Relativity: Will it survive the next decade? Yes. However several interesting comments are made. It is mentioned on p2 "Even at the classical level, and assuming the Equivalence Principle, Einstein’s theory does not provide the most general way to establish the spacetime metric." This is an important point which we'll come back to later. Note the Equivalence Principle ie freely falling bodies have the same acceleration in the same gravitational field independent on their compositions (second important point we'll come back to later) which means a feather and a cannon ball for eg dropped in a vacuum will touch the ground at the same time, watch this video. It is also mentioned that GR does not provide an understanding how gravity should be described at the quantum level. Many researchers are concentrating their efforts on a unified theory of Physics that would include the electromagnetic, weak and strong interactions with gravity. Currently Quantum Field Theory fails in strongly curved spacetime metrics (ie where GR is applicable) while GR only works when Planck's constant (Quantum Field Theory) is ignored. The two models when considered separately work very well though at describing Nature on the large and small scales however concepts such as warp drives and wormholes for eg which are allowed in GR are denied by QFT (more specifically the physics of the quantum vacuum see Vol 5 p116 of Motion Mountain). The paper goes on to describe the many solar system wide experiments that have been carried out that confirm GR to great detail.

Section 3.4 deals with the interesting concept of gravity shielding. An earlier paper by Majorana in 1920 suggested the introduction of a screening or extinction coefficient, \(h\) to measure the shielding of a material of density \(\rho\text{(r)}\) of the gravitational force between two masses which can be modelled as follows
$$F'=\frac{G\, m_{1}\, m_{2}}{r^{2}}exp\left[-h\int\rho\text{(r) dr}\right].$$

There is currently no avenue in physics to derive \(h\), the gravitational shielding constant, without violating the equivalence principle and there are no materials known that would affect this coefficient. According to the paper the modern laboratory constraint is currently set at  \(h\leq4.3\times10^{-15}m^{2}kg^{-1}\). So is gravitational shielding a dead concept? It appears that no materials regardless of their density or composition will do the job, we'll get back to this topic in Part 2. The rest of the paper looks at other cosmological studies to confirm GR, alternate models of gravity and talks about dark matter (made of conventional matter and black holes surrounding galaxies) and dark energy (vacuum energy).
In the next post I'll look at a few more interesting papers and further thoughts on Gravity Control Propulsion.


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