Physics: Principles and Problems Physics: Principles and Problems


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In the News

For use with Chapter 6

How Far Is Too Far?
Posted September 16, 1998

Have you ever wanted to take a trip to another planet in another star system? You see it all the time in movies and on TV, but that's all science fiction, right? Maybe...and maybe not.

Right now, the farthest human beings have traveled has been the moon. NASA is planning to send an astronaut to Mars, but that is only a tiny step compared to the size of our entire galaxy. Even our uncrewed probes have only gone as far as the outer planets.

The biggest obstacle keeping us from interstellar flight is space itself. At our current top speed, it would take millions of years to get to the closest star. Even if we were able to make a traditional rocket that could travel fast enough to reach the nearest star in a reasonable amount of time, it would need 10119 kg of fuel. Considering that there is only 1055 kg of matter in the entire universe, this is clearly impossible.

Will we ever be able to send a craft beyond our solar system? NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin thinks so. He has challenged NASA and other scientists to develop a new propulsion system that will enable interstellar flight.

NASA scientist Marc Millis is the leader of NASA's Breakthrough Propulsion Physics (BPP) Program. So far, this group have identified three possibilities. One is to use the force from nuclear explosions to propel a ship. Early research was conducted on this type of system in the 1960s, but it had to be stopped because it violated the nuclear test ban treaty.

Another possibility is to use the energy released during matter/antimatter reactions. You will read more about antimatter in Chapter 30.

The final and most likely propulsion system would use light for power. Huge "light sails" would be built on a ship. Light from a high-powered laser on Earth would strike these sails and propel the ship through space.

NASA expects to take many years to develop these new technologies, and even longer to test them. But maybe some day, humans could travel to the stars using warp drives like you have seen in science fiction movies.

Visit Marc Millis' web site and learn how science fiction has inspired current forms of space travel. What science fiction movies, books, or television shows do you think have inspired the breakthrough propulsion research?



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