Future Space Travel May Rely On Magnets, Not Fuel

Future Space Travel May Rely On Magnets, Not Fuel

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.

5 Real Possibilities For Interstellar Travel

We may already have the means to make it possible.

Former Astronaut Develops Powerful Rocket

Could this be the rocket that helps us reach the stars?

03:48

Key Facts In This Video

  • 1

    The VASIMR rocket works using plasma, a gas that's been heated to temperatures close to that of the sun. (0:59)

  • 2

    The rocket uses a magnetic field to enclose and guide the plasma to produce propulsion. (1:32)

  • 3

    The rocket requires much less fuel than other technologies. (2:04)

Is Interstellar Travel Possible?

Time starts to behave very differently at and beyond the speed of light.

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