How a Single Device Could Accelerate Space Exploration

Ed. Note: Yesterday the FREE Tomorrow in Review e-letter continued its monthly “7 Things You Need to Know” series with the third insightful contribution from scientific and financial journalist Stephen Petranek. (In case you missed it, you can read it for yourself, right here.) Today, he returns with the final two installments of his series. Read on…

6. Can This Car Blind You?

Here’s a car you do not want to see in the United States — the new Audi R8 LMX.

It’s basically a race car that’s somehow street legal with an insanely powerful 5.2-liter V10 producing 570 horsepower in a car that weighs only 200 pounds more than a Toyota Camry.

Because it also has all-wheel drive, it can manage tire spin well enough to go from 0 to 62 mph in 3.4 seconds.

Very few American drivers are capable of keeping a vehicle like this going straight down the highway, but its real danger is far more extraordinary — it has lasers in its headlight assembly.

Audi R8 LMXAudi R8 LMX is the first car to feature laser headlamp technology as standard equipment, supplementing its LED high beam projectors.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had it with Xenon and other so-called “advanced” headlights that quite simply blind other drivers.

For nearly three decades, going back to the origin of halogen headlights on autos, many of us have been slowly but surely deprived of reasonable night vision.

It’s amazing that most highways aren’t littered with accidents caused by these blue-light antagonists.

Audi has led the way over the years into nighttime one-upmanship with powerful advanced LED lights, and now admits the lasers on the R8 will double the distance the LED light travels.

There’s only one way to do that — raise the angle of the lights so the photons travel farther before they hit the ground.

A phosphor converts the laser-driven beam into 5,500 Kelvin wavelength light, approximating the wavelength of sunlight. And we all know that permanent retina damage occurs if you look directly at the sun.

The only saving grace of these engineering showoffs is that Audi is so far not importing the LMX version with the laser headlights into the United States.

But apparently, BMW is willing to take up the slack. It intends to import the new i8 electric sports car with laser-beam headlights.

Next thing you know, police cars will have so many flashing lights on them they’ll cause accidents simply by stopping speeders. Oh… whoops… that’s already true.

7. As Einstein Said, This Stuff Is Really Spooky

As any physics student knows, “Every action produces an equal and opposite reaction,” and in the vacuum of space, that means you need a propellant to push you along. You need something that you can eject from your spaceship to move you in the opposite direction.

Chemical rockets use fuel and oxidizer. Some recent space probes use experimental ion thrusters that use electricity to accelerate a propellant.

However, to move along in space, you still need to carry some kind of matter. Or do you?

If you want to be able to produce a lot of change in velocity for long space voyages, you need to carry a lot of propellant. And that’s a lot of mass, which means you have to carry even more propellant to accelerate that additional mass.

It’s called “the tyranny of the rocket equation.” To go farther and faster, you need more fuel. To lift more fuel off the Earth, you need more fuel.

To avoid this reality, space probes often have to follow circuitous, years-long trajectories that slingshot them around huge masses like the sun to get a boost from the object’s gravity.

The amount of mass they would need to carry for more direct routes isn’t feasible, because it would be too expensive to launch into orbit.

However, the world of quantum mechanics doesn’t always obey the rules of Newton.

British aerospace engineer Roger Shawyer of Satellite Propulsion Research Ltd. has said that when a beam of microwaves is directed inside a specially shaped, enclosed container, it appears to produce measurable thrust without a propellant.

He called it the EmDrive. Shawyer proposed a relativity-based theory for why it works, but there is a lot of disagreement.

Recently, when Chinese researchers built their own version of the EmDrive, they too confirmed that it produced thrust.

Now NASA has stepped in and added additional confirmation that such a device can actually produce thrust. They were very careful to try to rule out other causes during a recent eight-day test.

NASA says: “Test results indicate that the RF resonant cavity thruster design, which is unique as an electric propulsion device, is producing a force that is not attributable to any classical electromagnetic phenomenon and therefore is potentially demonstrating an interaction with the quantum vacuum virtual plasma.”

If true, the device could accelerate space exploration and commercialization. But that will depend on someone actually understanding what is going on and then figuring out how to scale it up from a lab desktop.


Stephen Petranek
for The Daily Reckoning

Ed. Note: So far this week, our tech e-letter Tomorrow in Review has covered everything from scientific discoveries at the edge of our atmosphere… to threats of neurotoxins in our food supply… to disruptive radio frequencies in our air that are changing how animals behave… to hackers in our computers (and bodies)… These are the things happening in science and technology today that you need to know to become a better investor and smarter person. Don’t miss another issue. Sign up for Tomorrow in Review, for FREE, right here.

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Stephen Petranek

Stephen Petranek’s career of over 40 years in the publishing world is marked by numerous prizes and awards for excellent writing on science, nature, technology, politics, economics and more. He has been editor-in-chief of the Miami Herald’s prestigious Sunday magazine, Tropic, and has covered a wide range of topics for Time Inc.’s Life magazine. His...

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