Propulsion technology is one of those things that a lot of people come into contact with at one time or another, yet very few people actually stop and think about the technology that goes into it. Unless you’re a scientist involved in developing new techniques for propulsion technology, you probably don’t stop to think about how remarkable it really is that rocket ships can be propelled into space or that there are so many possibilities about things like deep space propulsion that exist. As a matter of fact, there are a lot of important advancements in propulsion technology occurring right now. Below are five of the most astonishing advancements that might surprise you.
1. Solar Sails
In exactly the same way that a sail can propel a sailboat through the water, a solar sail is capable of propelling a spacecraft through space. The sails are actually like large solar panels. They accumulate heat from the sun during the day. As the sails heat up, the matter in them also expands, thereby creating pressure. The radiation that is exerted from this type of energy can then be used to power the spacecraft through space. It’s one of the more reliable forms of spacecraft propulsion and it’s also one that is extremely cost-effective. The solar sails themselves aren’t necessarily cheap to produce, but once they are attached to the spacecraft, it’s much more cost-effective in its design than some of the earlier designs that depended on hydrogen fuel and other types of propulsion.
2. Electrothermal Engines
There is no doubt about it, electrothermal engines are among some of the most interesting forms of propulsion known to mankind. That’s largely because they don’t rely on traditional types of fuel or anything else in order for them to work. In fact, this type of engine uses a nozzle that allows the heat generated by the engine to go through the nozzle, thereby allowing that part of the engine to create what is called linear motion. In short, the nozzle itself is designed so that as the engine generates heat, that heat is then forced down into a progressively smaller area that eventually becomes the nozzle itself. Because the area gets progressively smaller in diameter, the heat moves faster as it gets closer to the edge of the nozzle. This heat then generates enough force to propel the aircraft.
3. Pulsed Fusion
Pulsed fusion is definitely an effective form of propulsion. It’s also one that is often considered one of the most difficult to explain. It involves some of the same principles that you might find in a working nuclear reactor. In short, it involves holding atoms that are becoming increasingly more active in what essentially amounts to a holding tank. These atoms move faster and faster as the energy builds up, thereby taking up more room. You might think of it in the same manner that you would think of watching a pot of water boil. As the water gets hotter, the individual particles of water start to move at ever-increasing speeds. This creates heat, which in turn creates energy. It’s the same thing when you’re talking about pulsed fusion, only it’s on a much grander scale. One of the things that makes this particular type of propulsion so popular is the fact that it can be controlled. In fact, these types of propulsion systems allow the operator to hold that energy and store it until they’re ready for it, then produce it in either relatively short bursts, or in more prolonged bursts of energy in order to achieve their desired goals. More importantly, it allows a craft to be operated with pinpoint accuracy.
4. Thermal Fission
If you really want to get down to the nuts and bolts of nuclear energy, thermal fission is very much akin to the types of things that you will find in a nuclear power plant. At its core, energy is produced by particles of matter that come together. For example, when a neutron strikes a nucleus of another cell, that cell then splits in two. This further increases the energy inside the holding container. Moreover, once this process begins, it continues unabated. In a controlled environment, such as in an enclosed container, the splitting of atoms creates a tremendous amount of energy. When that energy can be harnessed, it creates an effective propulsion system that can propel even the largest, heaviest objects at vast distances and at speeds that are almost too fast to fathom. When it operates properly, thermal fission is one of the most effective propulsion systems in existence. The problem is, it’s not always predictable and it is sometimes volatile. Fortunately, advancements in science are making it less volatile with each passing day, meaning that it holds promise as an effective propulsion system in its own right at some point in the very near future.
5. Antimatter Powered Spacecraft
Antimatter powered spacecraft have been around for quite some time, although the method that was used for propelling them wasn’t as efficient as the newer, more advanced methods that are used today. For example, the previous systems utilize something called antiprotons. They would effectively obliterate themselves and in doing so, they would create gamma radiation which could then be used for propulsion. The system was effective in some cases, but it wasn’t reliable enough to truly be trusted. Today, a new design is in place that uses positrons, something that is far more stable. Furthermore, positrons are able to generate the same amount of gamma rays with much less energy as compared to antiprotons. As a result, it makes it easier to propel a spacecraft because it doesn’t take as much energy to do the job in the first place.