(TMU) – The concept of interstellar travel has fascinated the human race for thousands of years. Discoveries made in the last century, however, have both bolstered and dampened that fascination. While the number of habitable star systems available for visitation has grown exponentially, the distance between these systems has grown more bleakly, mathematically daunting.
If we sent our fastest space probe to the nearest star, Alpha Centauri, it would take tens of thousands of years to arrive. While galaxies look like homogenous swirls of star clusters, the reality is we are looking at it from a vast, intergalactic scale; the extraordinary distances between stars still make crewed interstellar travel a dubious proposition that many scientists believe won’t be possible for centuries if at all.
However, in recent years, a number of technological models of propulsion – such as light sails pushed by lasers, ion thrusters, fusion engines, wormholes, and even hydrogen bombs – have made the concept of an interstellar probe that can travel a certain percentage of the speed of light increasingly possible.
The newest and perhaps the strangest theory is by Jim Woodward, a physics professor emeritus at Fullerton, who has proposed a Mach-effect gravitational assist (MEGA) drive. Woodward has actually been developing his model for decades but has only recently found a rapt audience. He posits that his drive could slowly accelerate with the help of a propulsion system based not on combustible fuel but rather electricity.
Based on a controversial sub-component to Einstein’s general relativity, Mach’s principle holds that inertia is directly tied to gravity and that this correlation, in theory, clears the way for “propellantless propulsion.” The thrust is generated by a stack of piezoelectric crystals, which store small amounts of energy and vibrate when electrified. These tens of thousands of vibrations per second eventually synchronize in small volumes and that synchronicity produces physical momentum.
The crystals, or “gizmos” as Woodward calls them, produce changes in mass, or “Mach effects,” that slowly but surely accelerate to incredible speeds. One of Woodward’s collaborators described the motion as “rowing a boat on the ocean of spacetime.”
The interior of the ship would probably need a nuclear reactor on-board to sustain electricity for the decades-long journey but, on its face, the theory seems to suggest that a starship could reach near the speed of light and deliver a crew across the interstellar gulf within a human lifetime.
For many years, Woodward’s thruster was considered absurdly improbable, but in recent years, tweaking and redesigning has gradually brought it around to something resembling respectable in the scientific community, so much so that he has received a grant and a slot in NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program. Woodward, who at 80 is a survivor of stage IV lung cancer as well as Hodgkin’s lymphoma, has also invested about $200,000 of his own money into testing the MEGA thrusters.
His idea still has plenty of critics.
Mike McCulloch, a physicist at the University of Plymouth, says, “In my opinion there is no merit to Woodward’s theory. I think the experimental results are more interesting than the theory.”
Others, like Woodword’s own collaborator, physicist Hal Fearn, says that his doubts have been tempered by lab results. “I haven’t been able to disprove it, and believe me, I’ve been trying to disprove it for the last 10 years.”
While the MEGA drive is still considered fringe physics and the odds against it working still high – anywhere from 10-1 to 10 million-one – it is just these kinds of moonshot ideas that sometimes catapult humans to new heights.