Future Space Travel May Rely On Magnets, Not Fuel

Brilliance | Dec. 08, 2017

Of all the limitations to space travel, fuel may be the biggest. Every time NASA's space shuttle has been launched into orbit, it takes off attached to a 1.6-million-pound fuel tank. Consider that NASA only packs enough fuel for a single round trip to orbit and back, and you begin to understand how astronomically impractical traveling beyond the solar system would be with that technology. That's why engineers have worked for decades to find a more efficient form of fuel. One solution: no fuel at all, via electromagnetic propulsion.

Ideas in this vein have come in many forms. In 2001, David Goodwin proposed that the vibration that occurs when electricity is applied to supercooled electromagnets could provide enough of a jostle to propel spacecraft faster and further into space than any other method. About a decade later, Franklin Chang Díaz began working on a magnet-based engine that requires some fuel in the form of argon gas. This turns into cold plasma that becomes energized by flowing through superconducting magnets, thereby creating thrust as the plasma escapes through the back. And in 2015, NASA EagleWorks propulsion researchers led by Harold "Sonny" White demonstrated that a flavor of fuel-free electromagnetic propulsion drive proposed in 2010 by Chinese scientist Juan Yang could work in a vacuum.

Explore the idea of interstellar travel with the videos below.

Check out our full series on the power of magnets and how they are shaping the future.

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