This idea from a few weeks back is actually a re-hash of ones that are already known, but that seems the norm for space stuff anyway, and it gives alternative modus operandi for one that NASA is playing with at the moment, so I’ll write it anyway. My brain has gotten rather fixated on space stuff of late, I blame Nick Colosimo who helped me develop the Pythagoras Sling. It’s still most definitely futurology so it belongs on my blog. You won’t see it in operation for a while.
A few railways use a rack and pinion mechanism to climb steep slopes. Usually they are trains that go up a mountainside, where presumably friction of a steel wheel on a steel rail isn’t enough to prevent slipping. Gears give much better traction. It seems to me that we could do that in space too. Imagine if such a train carries the track, lays it out in front of it, and then travels along it while getting the next piece ready. That’s the idea here too, except that the track is quantized space and the gear engaging on it is another basic physics effect chosen to give a minimum energy state when aligned with the appropriate quantum states on the track. It doesn’t really matter what kind of interaction is used as long as it is quantized, and most physics fields and forces are.
Fortunately, since most future physics will be discovered and consequential engineering implemented by AI, and even worse, much will only be understood by AI, AI will do most of the design here and I as a futurist can duck most of the big questions like “how will you actually do it then?” and just let the future computers sort it out. We have plenty of time, we’re not going anywhere far away any time soon.
An electric motor in your washing machine typically has a lot of copper coils that produce a strong magnetic field when electricity is fed through them, and those fields try to force the rotor into a position that is closest to another adjacent set of magnets in the casing. This is a minimum energy state, kind of like a ball rolling into the bottom of a valley. Before it gets a chance to settle there, the electric current is fed into the next section of coil so the magnetic field changes and the rotor is no longer comfy and instead wants to move to the next orientation. It never gets a chance to settle since the magnet it wants to cosy up with always changes its mind just in time for the next one to look sexy.
Empty space like you find between stars has very little matter in it, but it will still have waves travelling through it, such as light, radio waves, or x-rays, and it will still be exposed to gravitational and electromagnetic forces from all directions. Some scientists also talk of dark energy, a modern equivalent of magic as far as I can tell, or at best the ether. I don’t think scientists in 2050 will still talk of dark energy except as an historic scientific relic. The many fields at a point of space are quantized, that is, they can only have certain values. They are in one state or the next one but they can’t be in between. All we need for our quantum rack and pinion to work is a means to impose a field onto the nearby space so that our quantum gear can interact with it just like our rotor in its electrical casing.
The most obvious way to do that is to use a strong electromagnetic field. Why? Well, we know how to do that, we use electrics, electronics and radio and lasers and such all the time. The other fields we know of are out of our reach and likely to remain so for decades or centuries, i.e. strong and weak forces and gravity. We know about them, and can make good use of them but we can’t yet engineer with them. We can’t even do anti-gravity yet. AI might fix that, but not yet.
If we generate a strong oscillating EM field in front of our space ship, it would impose a convenient quantum structure on nearby space. Another EM field slightly out of alignment should create a force pulling them into alignment just like it does for our washing machine motor. That will be harder than it sounds due to EM fields moving at light speed, relativity and all that stuff. It would need the right pulse design and phasing, and accurate synchronization of phase differences too. We have many devices that can generate high frequency EM waves, such as lasers and microwaves, and microwaves particularly interact well with metals, generating eddy currents that produce large magnetic forces. Therefore, clever design should be able to make a motor that generates microwaves as the rack and the metal shell of the microwave containment should then be able to act as the pinion.
Or engineers could do it accidentally (and that happens more often than you’d like to believe). You’ve probably already heard of the EM drive that has NASA all excited.
It produces microwaves that bounce around in a funnel-shaped cavity and experiments do seem to indicate that it produces measurable thrust. NASA thinks it works by asymmetric forces caused by the shape of their motor. I beg to differ. The explanation is important because you need to know how something works if you want to get the most from it.
I think their EM drive works as a quantum rack and pinion device as I’ve described. I think the microwaves impose the quantum structure and phase differences caused by the shape accidentally interact and create a very inefficient thruster which would be a hell of a lot better if they phase their fields correctly. When NASA realizes that, and starts designing it with that theoretical base then they’ll be able to adjust the beam frequencies and phases and the shape of the cavity to optimize the result, and they’ll get far greater force.
If you don’t like my theory, another one has since come to light that is also along similar lines, Pilot Wave theory:
It may well all be the same idea, just explained from different angles and experiences. If it works, and if we can make it better, then we may well have a mechanism that can realistically take us to the stars. That is something we should all hope for.