Scientists receive $1.3 million to study new propulsion idea for spacecraft

Spacecraft and satellites could in future be launched into space without the need for fuel, thanks to a revolutionary new theory.

Dr Mike McCulloch, from the University of Plymouth, first put forward the idea of quantised inertia (QI) – through which he believes light can be converted into thrust – in 2007.

He has now received $1.3million from the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for a four-year study which aims to make the concept a reality.

The QI theory predicts that objects can be pushed by differences in the intensity of so-called Unruh radiation in space, similar to the way in which a ship can be pushed towards a dock because there are more waves hitting it from the seaward side.

The theory has already predicted galaxy rotation without dark matter, and the fact that if a system is accelerated enough – such as a spinning disc or light bouncing between mirrors – the Unruh waves it sees can be influenced by a shield. Therefore, if a damper is placed above the object, it should produce a new kind of upwards thrust.

Chemical rockets are very expensive because of the explosive propellant they need, so this new kind of thruster would be much cheaper and safer as it would only need a source of electrical power to accelerate the core of a thruster.

Dr McCulloch, Lecturer in Geomatics at the University, believes the study could benefit all forms of propulsion and transport, with a potentially transformative impact on space launch systems, aircraft and cars. He said:

“I believe QI could be a real game changer for space science. I have always thought it could be used to convert light into thrust, but it also suggests ways to enhance that thrust. It is hugely exciting to now have the opportunity to test it.”

The research is being funded through DARPA’s Nascent Light-Matter Interactions (NLM) programme, which aims to improve the fundamental understanding of how to control the interaction of light and engineered materials.

It will see Dr McCulloch collaborating with experimental scientists from the Technische Universität Dresden in Germany, and the University of Alcala in Spain.

Over the first 18 months, the Plymouth team will seek to develop a fully predictive theoretical model of how matter interacts with light (Unruh radiation) using the quantised inertia model. This will provide a new predictive tool for light-matter interactions.

A series of experiments will then be conducted in Germany and Spain to test whether the thrust is specifically due to quantised inertia, and whether it can be enhanced significantly.

“Ultimately, what this could mean is you would need no propellant to launch a satellite,” Dr McCulloch added. “But it would also mean you only need a source of electrical power, for example solar power, to move any craft once it is in space. It has the potential to make interplanetary travel much easier, and interstellar travel possible.”