A NASA scientist has cooked up plans for a bonkers new rocket engine that can reach close to the speed of light — without using any fuel.
Travelling at such speeds, the theoretical machine could carry astronauts to Mars in less than 13 minutes, or to the Moon in just over a second.
However, the real purpose of the so-called “helical engine” would be to travel to distant stars far quicker than any existing tech, according to NASA engineer Dr David Burns.
Dr Burns, from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre in Alabama, unveiled the idea in a head-spinning paper posted to NASA’s website.
“This in-space engine could be used for long-term satellite station-keeping without refuelling,” Dr Burns writes in his paper.
“It could also propel spacecraft across interstellar distances, reaching close to the speed of light.”
Travelling at these speeds, light would struggle to keep up with you, warping your vision in bizarre ways.
Everything behind you would appear black, and time would appear to stop altogether, with clocks slowing down to a crawl and planets seemingly ceasing to spin.
Dr Burns’ mad idea is revolutionary because it does away with rocket fuel altogether.
Today’s rockets, like those built by NASA and SpaceX, would need tonnes of propellants like liquid hydrogen to carry people to Mars and beyond.
The problem is, the more fuel you stick on the craft, the heavier it is. Modern propellant tanks are far too bulky to take on interstellar flights.
The helical engine gets around this using hi-tech particle accelerators like those found in Europe’s Large Hadron Collider.
Tiny particles are fired at high speed using electromagnets, recycled back around the engine, and fired again.
Using a loophole in the laws of physics, the engine could theoretically reach speeds of around 297 million metres per second, according to Dr Burns.
The contraption is just a concept for now, and it’s not clear if it would actually work.
“If someone says it doesn’t work, I’ll be the first to say, it was worth a shot,” Dr Burns told New Scientist.
“You have to be prepared to be embarrassed. It is very difficult to invent something that is new under the sun and actually works.”
In its simplest terms, the engine works by taking advantage of how mass changes at the speed of light.
In his paper, Dr Burns provides a concept to break this down that describes a ring inside a box, attached to each end by a spring.
When the ring is sprung in one direction, the box recoils in the other, as is described by Newton’s laws of motion: Every action must have an equal and opposite reaction.
“When the ring reaches the end of the box, it will bounce backwards, and the box’s recoil direction will switch too,” New Scientist explains.
However, if the box and the ring are travelling at the speed of light, things work a little differently.
At such speeds, according to Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, as the ring approaches the end of the box it will increase in mass.
This means it will hit harder when it reaches the end of the box, resulting in forward momentum.
The engine itself will achieve a similar feat using a particle accelerator and ion particles, but that’s the general gist.
“Chemical, nuclear and electric propulsion systems produce thrust by accelerating and expelling propellants,” Dr Burns writes in his paper.
“Deep space travel is often a trade-off between thrust and large propellant storage tanks that eventually limit performance.
“The objective of this paper is to introduce and examine a unique engine that uses a closed-cycle propellant.”
The design is capable of producing a thrust up to 99 per cent the speed of light without breaking Einstein’s theory of relativity, according to Dr Burns.
However, the plan does breach Newton’s law of motion — violating the laws of physics.
That’s not the only thing holding the helical engine back: Dr Burns reckoned it would have to be 198 metres long and 12 metres wide to work.
The gizmo would also only operate effectively in the frictionless environment of deep space.
It may sound like a harebrained scheme, but engine concepts that do away with rocket fuel have been proposed before.
They include the EM drive, a machine that could theoretically generate rocket thrust using rays of light. The idea was later proved impossible.
“I know that it risks being right up there with the EM drive and cold fusion,” Dr Burns told New Scientist.
This article originally appeared on The Sun and was reproduced with permission