by Francis Temman
Greenbelt (AFP) June 12, 2000 - On first glance, the idea of launching missions beyond our solar system seems straight out of a science fiction novel, but Robert Winglee thinks it's possible with his magnetic propulsion system.
The invention by the professor from the University of Washington in Seattle is now only a prototype, but if he succeeds in perfecting it, the length of interplanetary space travel could be reduced by a factor of 10, making our first tentative exploration of space beyond the reaches of the solar system possible.
The project is no joking matter to the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and NASA has already partially funded the research. The next experimental tests will be conducted at the NASA Marshall Space Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
"The computer simulations already have proved that my theory works. If it is validated by the tests that NASA will conduct later this year, then we might see it become reality in the next 10 years," Winglee told AFP during a presentation of his project at Goddard Space Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
He has left more than one scientist stunned by the simplicity of his idea, which consists of enveloping an engine in a magnetic bubble that would deflect the solar wind and accelerate a vessel to speeds of 80 kilometers (50 miles) per second - nearly twice the Earth's escape velocity.
At this amazing speed, it would only take three or four years to reach the edge of the solar system, compared to 42 years with current technology.
US space shuttles with chemical propulsion systems now travel at speeds of 27,700 kilometers (17,200 miles) per hour or 7.7 kilometers (4.8 miles) per second. The ionic engine of the Deep Space 1 probe traveled at only 13,000 kilometers (8,000 miles) per hour.
Winglee's inspiration came as he studied the frequent eruptions on the surface of the sun. He noticed that a magnetic field formed around spurts of plasma, or ionized gas, that were violently ejected into space.
He also noted that the Earth itself is protected from solar wind by the magnetosphere, which is essentially an enormous bubble surrounding the planet.
This bubble deflects the gaseous winds traveling at speeds up to 3.6 million kilometers (2.2 million miles) per hour from the sun. The wind exerts a force, but it is not powerful enough to displace the Earth because of the planet's immense mass.
However, the force could be enough to move the smaller mass of a space ship, Winglee explained.
His idea is to reproduce this bubble around a space ship. The injection of plasma, helium for example, around the vessel would cause the bubble to swell and help propel the ship.
"What we're proposing to do is create a magnetic bubble to deflect the solar wind," Winglee explained.
Other than its simplicity, the most remarkable aspect of the invention, dubbed "Mini-Magnetospheric Plasma Propulsion, M2P2," is that it rests on physical principles that have long been known. With the system, the immense Mylar sails envisioned by some to "surf" the solar wind will no longer be needed.
"We have been stuck with chemical propulsion since the day of the V-2 rocket," laments NASA associate administrator Ed Weiler. "If humans are ever to reach the stars, we need a lot more of this innovative thinking."
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