Category Archives: space

Pythagoras Sling update

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing mission, I updated my Pythagoras Sling a bit. It now uses floating parachutes so no rockets or balloons are needed at all and the whole thing is now extremely simple.

Introducing the Pythagoras Sling –

A novel means of achieving space flight

Dr I D Pearson & Prof Nick Colosimo

 

Executive Summary

A novel reusable means of accelerating a projectile to sub-orbital or orbital flight is proposed which we have called The Pythagoras Sling. It was invented by Dr Pearson and developed with the valuable assistance of Professor Colosimo. The principle is to use large parachutes as effective temporary anchors for hoops, through which tethers may be pulled that are attached to a projectile. This system is not feasible for useful sizes of projectiles with current materials, but will quickly become feasible with higher range of roles as materials specifications improve with graphene and carbon composite development. Eventually it will be capable of launching satellites into low Earth orbit, and greatly reduce rocket size and fuel needed for human space missions.

Specifications for acceleration rates, parachute size and initial parachute altitudes ensure that launch timescales can be short enough that parachute movement is acceptable, while specifications of the materials proposed ensure that the system is lightweight enough to be deployed effectively in the size and configuration required.

Major advantages include (eventually) greatly reduced need for rocket fuel for orbital flight of human cargo or potential total avoidance of fuel for orbital flight of payloads that can tolerate higher g-forces; consequently reduced stratospheric emissions of water vapour that otherwise present an AGW issue; simplicity resulting in greatly reduced costs for launch; and avoidance of risks to expensive payloads until active parts of the system are in place. Other risks such as fuel explosions are removed completely.

The journey comprises two parts: the first part towards the first parachute conveys high vertical speed while the second part converts most of this to horizontal speed while continuing acceleration. The projectile therefore acquires very high horizontal speed required for sub-orbital and potentially for orbital missions.

The technique is intended mainly for the mid-term and long-term future, since it only comes into its own once it becomes possible to economically make graphene components such as strings, strong rings and tapes, but short term use is feasible with lower but still useful specifications based on interim materials. While long term launch of people-carrying rockets is feasible, shorter term uses would be limited to smaller payloads or those capable of withstanding higher g-forces. That makes it immediately useful for some satellite or military launches, with others quickly becoming feasible as materials improve.

Either of two mechanisms may be used for drawing the cable – a drum based reel or a novel electromagnetic cable drive system. The drum variant may be speed limited by the strength of drum materials, given very high centrifugal forces. The electromagnetic variant uses conventional propulsion techniques, essentially a linear motor, but in a novel arrangement so is partly unproven.

There are also alternative methods available for parachute deployment and management. One is to make the parachutes from lighter-than-air materials, such as graphene foam, which is capable of making solid forms less dense than helium. The chutes would float up and be pulled into their launch positions. A second option is to use helium balloons to carry them up, again pulling them into launch positions. A third is to use a small rocket or even two to deploy them. Far future variants will probably opt for lighter-than-air parachutes, since they can float up by themselves, carry additional tethers and equipment, and can remain at high altitude to allow easy reuse, floating back up after launch.

There are many potential uses and variants of the system, all using the same principle of temporary high-atmosphere anchors, aerodynamically restricted to useful positions during launch. Not all are discussed here. Although any hypersonic launch system has potential military uses, civil uses to reduce or eliminate fuel requirements for space launch for human or non-human payloads are by far the most exciting potential as the Sling will greatly reduce the currently prohibitive costs of getting people and material into orbit. Without knowing future prices for graphene, it is impossible to precisely estimate costs, but engineering intuition alone suggests that such a simple and re-usable system with such little material requirement ought to be feasible at two or three orders of magnitude less than current prices, and if so, could greatly accelerate mid-century space industry development.

Formal articles in technical journals may follow in due course that discuss some aspects of the sling and catapult systems, but this article serves as a simple publication and disclosure of the overall system concepts into the public domain. Largely reliant on futuristic materials, the systems cannot reasonably be commercialised within patent timeframes, so hopefully the ideas that are freely given here can be developed further by others for the benefit of all.

This is not intended to be a rigorous analysis or technical specification, but hopefully conveys enough information to stimulate other engineers and companies to start their own developments based on some of the ideas disclosed.

Introductory Background

A large number of non-fuel space launch systems have been proposed, from Jules Verne’s 1865 Moon gun through to modern railguns, space hooks and space elevators. Rail guns convey moderately high speeds in the atmosphere where drag and heating are significant limitations, but their main limitation is requiring very high accelerations but still achieving too low muzzle velocity for even sub-orbital trips. Space-based tether systems such as space hooks or space elevators may one day be feasible, but not soon. Current space launches all require rockets, which are still fairly dangerous, and are highly expensive. They also dump large quantities of water vapour into the high atmosphere where, being fairly persistent, it contributes significantly to the greenhouse effect, especially as it drifts towards the poles. Moving towards using less or no fuel would be a useful step in many regards.

The Pythagoras Sling

In summary, having considered many potential space launch mechanisms based on high altitude platforms or parachutes, by far the best system is the Pythagoras Sling. This uses two high-altitude parachutes attached to rings, offering enough drag to act effectively as temporary slow-moving anchors while a tether is pulled through them quickly to accelerate a projectile upwards and then into a curve towards final high horizontal speed.

 

We called this approach the Pythagoras Sling due to its simplicity and triangular geometry. It comprises some ground equipment, two large parachutes and a length of string. The parachutes would ideally be made using lighter-than-air materials such as graphene foam, a foam of tiny graphene spheres containing vacuum, that is less dense than helium. They could therefore float up to the required altitude, and could be manoeuvred into place immediately prior to launch. During the launch process they would move so it would take a few hours to float back to their launch positions. They could remain at high altitude for long periods, perhaps permanently. In that case, as well as carrying the tether for the launch, additional tethers would be needed to anchor and manoeuvre the parachutes and to feed launch tether through in preparation for a new launch. It is easy to design the system so that these additional maintenance tethers are kept well out of the way of the launch path.

The parachutes could be as large as desired if such lightweight materials are used, but if alternative mechanisms such as rockets or balloons are used to carry them into place, they would probably be around 50m diameter, similar to the Mars landing ones.

Each parachute would carry a ring through which the launch tether is threaded, and the rings would need to be very strong, low friction, heat-resistant and good at dispersing heat. Graphene seems an ideal choice but better materials may emerge in coming years.

The first parachute would float up to a point 60-80km above the launch site and would act as the ‘sky anchor’ for the first phase of launch where the payload gathers vertical speed. The 2nd parachute would be floated up and then dragged (using the maintenance tether) as far away and as high as feasible, but typically to the same height and 150km away horizontally, to act as the fulcrum for the arc part of the flight where the speed is both increased and converted to horizontal speed needed for orbit.

Simulation will be required to determine optimal specifications for both human and non-human payloads.

Another version exists where the second parachute is deployed from a base with winding equipment 150km distant from the initial rocket launch. Although requiring two bases, this variant holds merit. However, using a single ground base for both chute deployments offers many advantages at the cost of using slightly longer and heavier tether. It also avoids the issue that before launch, the tether would be on the ground or sea surface over a long distance unless additional system details are added to support it prior to launch such as smaller balloons. For a permanent launch site, where the parachutes remain at high altitude along with the tethers, this is no longer an issue so the choice may be made on a variety of other factors. The launch principle remains exactly the same.

Launch Process

On launch, with the parachutes, rings and tethers all in place, the tether is pulled by either a jet engine powered drum or an electromagnetic drive, and the projectile accelerates upwards. When it approaches the first parachute, the tether is disengaged from that ring, to avoid collision and to allow the second parachute to act as a fulcrum. The projectile is then forced to follow an arc, while the tether is still pulled, so that acceleration continues during this period. When it reaches the final release position, the tether is disengaged, and the projectile is then travelling at orbital or suborbital velocity, at around 200km altitude. The following diagram summarises the process.

Two-base variant

This variant with two bases and using rocket deployment of the parachutes still qualifies as a Pythagoras Sling because they are essentially the same idea with just minor configurational differences. Each layout has different merits and simulation will undoubtedly show significant differences for different kinds of missions that will make the choice obvious.

Calculations based on graphene materials and their theoretical specifications suggest that this could be quite feasible as a means to achieve sub-orbital launches for humans and up to orbital launches for smaller satellites that can cope with 15g acceleration. Other payloads would still need rockets to achieve orbit, but greatly reduced in size and cost.

Exchanges of calculations between the authors, based on the best materials available today suggest that this idea already holds merit for use for microsatellites, even if it falls well below graphene system capabilities. However, graphene technology is developing quickly, and other novel materials are also being created with impressive physical qualities, so it might not be many years before the Sling is capable of launching a wide range of payload sizes and weights.

In closing

The Pythagoras Sling arose after several engineering explorations of high-altitude platform launch systems. As is often the case in engineering, the best solution is also by far the simplest. It is the first space launch system that treats parachutes effectively as temporary aerial anchors, and it uses just a string pulled through two rings held by those temporary anchors, attached to the payload. That string could be pulled by a turbine or an electromagnetic linear motor drive, so could be entirely electric. The system would be extremely safe, with no risk of fuel explosions, and extremely cheap compared to current systems. It would also avoid dumping large quantities of greenhouse gases into the high atmosphere. The system cannot be built yet, and its full potential won’t be realised until graphene or similarly high specification strings or tapes are economically available. However, it should be well noted that other accepted future systems such as the Space Elevator will also need such materials, but in vastly larger quantity. The Pythagoras Sling will certainly be achievable many years before a space elevator and once it is, could well become the safest and cheapest way to put a wide range of payloads into orbit.

Cable-based space launch system

A rail gun is a simple electromagnetic motor that very rapidly accelerates a metal slug by using it as part of an electrical circuit. A strong magnetic field arises as the current passes through the slug, propelling it forwards.

EM launch system

An ‘inverse rail gun’ uses the same principle, but rather than a short slug, the force acts on a small section of a long cable, which continues to pass through the system. As that section passes through, another takes its place, passing on the force and acceleration to the remainder of the cable. That also means that each small section only has a short and tolerable time of extreme heating resulting from high current.

This can be used either to accelerate a cable, optionally with a payload on the end, or via Newtonian reaction, to drag a motor along a cable, the motor acting as a sled, accelerating all along the cable. If the cable is very long, high speeds could result in the vacuum of space. Since the motor is little more than a pair of conductive plates, it can easily be built into a simple spacecraft.

A suitable spacecraft could thus use a long length of this cable to accelerate to high speed for a long distance trip. Graphene being an excellent conductor as well as super-strong, it should be able to carry the high electric currents needed in the motor, and solar panels/capacitors along the way could provide it.

With such a simple structure, made from advanced materials, and with only linear electromagnetic forces involved, extreme speeds could be achieved.

A system could be made for trips to Mars for example. 10,000 tons of sufficiently strong graphene cable to accelerate a 2 ton craft at 5g could stretch 6.7M km through space, and at 5g acceleration (just about tolerable for trained astronauts), would get them to 800km/s at launch, in 4.6 hours. That’s fast enough to get to Mars in 5-12 days, depending where it is, plus a day each end to accelerate and decelerate, 7-14 days total.

10,000 tons is a lot of graphene by today’s standards, but we routinely use 10,000 tons of steel in shipbuilding, and future technology may well be capable of producing bulk carbon materials at acceptable cost (and there would be a healthy budget for a reusable Mars launch system). It’s less than a space elevator.

6.7M km is a huge distance, but space is pretty empty, and even with gravitation forces distorting the cable, the launch phase can be designed to straighten it. A shorter length of cable on the opposite side of an anchor (attached to a Moon tower, or a large mass at a Lagrange point) would be used to accelerate the spacecraft towards the launch end of the cable, at relatively low speed, say 100km/s, a 20 hour journey, and the deceleration phase of that trip applies significant force to the cable, helping to straighten and tension it for the launch immediately following. The craft would then accelerate along the cable, travel to Mars at high speed, and there would need to be an intercept system there to slow it. That could be a mirror of the launch system, or use alternative intercept equipment such as a folded graphene catcher (another blog).

Power requirements would peak at the very last moments, at a very high 80GW. Then again, this is not something we could build next year, so it should be considered in the context of a mature and still fast-developing space industry, and 800km/s is pretty fast, 0.27% of light speed, and that would make it perfect for asteroid defense systems too, so it has other ways to help cost in. Slower systems would have lower power requirements or longer cable could be used.

Some tricky maths is involved at every stage of the logistics, but no more than any other complex space trip. Overall, this would be a system that would be very long but relatively low in mass and well within scales of other human engineering.

So, I think it would be hard, but not too hard, and a system that could get people to Mars in literally a week or two would presumably be much favored over one that takes several months, albeit it comes with some serious physical stress at each end. So of course it needs work and I’ve only hinted superficially at solutions to some of the issues, but I think it offers potential.

On the down-side, the spaceship would have kinetic energy of 640TJ, comparable to a small nuke, and that was mainly limited by the 5g acceleration astronauts can cope with. Scaling up acceleration to 1000s of gs military levels could make weapons comparable to our largest nukes.

If you’re looking for aliens visiting Earth, what might they look like?

I don’t believe stories about aliens capturing isolated nutters and probing them on their spaceships before bringing them home, but who don’t bother to make their presence known to anyone else. That makes no sense. I theorized many years ago that perhaps the main reason we don’t see aliens visiting is that by the time a civilization gets to the technology level that permits interstellar travel, they are most likely to eradicate themselves via high-tech weaponry, nanotech accidents or some other tech-enabled extinction route. I suggested that almost all civilizations would become extinct within 300 years of discovering radio.

I also wrote a blog about how genetically engineered fairies would make ideal space travelers, since they could be made very small, and therefore only need small and cheap space ships, but thanks to electronic brains or use of external IT as brain space, be just as smart as real people, and have wings to fly around zero gravity spaceships.

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/06/06/fairies-will-dominate-space-travel/

Extending that thought to what aliens might look like, they would likely have the same capability in genetic engineering, and face the same engineering constraints, so would likely come up with a similar solution.

Miniaturization could go much further, and it’s possible in principle to make tiny capsules, microns across, that contain all the data needed to make a human or android body, and a few nano-fabricators that could do the building of other fabricators that make the infrastructure, robots, androids and organisms once they land on another planet. Maybe an advanced civilization might have the technology to make small wormholes through which to fire these tiny capsules in many directions so as to rapidly explore and colonize a galaxy. Given reasonably expectable morality, they wouldn’t want to geoengineer planets that are already inhabited, so the capsules would only activate if they land on uninhabited planets.

So, given these two quite likely technology capabilities for an interstellar space-fairing civilizations, aliens would either be in a micron-sized capsule or two that could be anywhere on the planet, and therefore highly unlikely to ever be found… or they might look like fairies.

Many people through history claim to have seen fairies of various descriptions, and usually they have magical powers. Via Arthur C Clarke, we of course know that any sufficiently advanced technology looks like magic. So, although I don’t believe they exist or existed, and think that those who claim to have seen them probably have poor eyesight or overly vivid imaginations or are drugged or pissed, or hallucinating, there is a small but finite possibility that they have existed and were visiting aliens.

Maybe fairies, pixies and other magical tiny people were simply aliens from different star systems.

 

Spiders in Space

A while back I read an interesting article about how small spiders get into the air to disperse, even when there is no wind:

Spiders go ballooning on electric fields: https://phys.org/news/2018-07-spiders-ballooning-electric-fields.html

If you don’t want to read it, the key point is that they use the electric fields in the air to provide enough force to drag them into the air. It gave me an idea. Why not use that same technique to get into space?

There is electric air potential right up to the very top of the atmosphere, but electric fields permeate space too. It only provides a weak force, enough to lift a 25mg spider using the electrostatic force on a few threads from its spinnerets.

25mg isn’t very heavy, but then the threads are only designed to lift the spider. Longer threads could generate higher forces, and lots of longer threads working together could generate significant forces. I’m not thinking of using this to launch space ships though. All I want for this purpose is to lift a few grams and that sounds feasible.

If we can arrange for a synthetic ‘cyber-spider’ to eject long graphene threads in the right directions, and to wind them back in when appropriate, our cyber-spider could harness these electric forces to crawl slowly into space, and then maintain altitude. It won’t need to stay in exactly the same place, but could simply use the changing fields and forces to stay within a reasonably small region. It won’t have used any fuel or rockets to get there or stay there, but now it is in space, even if it isn’t very high, it could be quite useful, even though it is only a few grams in weight.

Suppose our invisibly small cyber-spider sits near the orbit of a particular piece of space junk. The space junk moves fast, and may well be much larger than our spider in terms of mass, but if a few threads of graphene silk were to be in its path, our spider could effectively ensnare it, cause an immediate drop of speed due to Newtonian sharing of momentum (the spider has to be accelerated to the same speed as the junk, from stationary so even though it is much lighter, that would still cause a significant drop in junk speed)) and then use its threads as a mechanism for electromagnetic drag, causing it to slowly lose more speed and fall out of orbit. That might compete well as a cheap mechanism for cleaning up space junk.

Some organic spiders can kill a man with a single bite, and space spiders could do much the same, albeit via a somewhat different process. Instead of junk, our spider could meander into collision course with an astronaut doing a space walk. A few grams isn’t much, but a stationary cyber-spider placed in the way of a rapidly moving human would have much the same effect as a very high speed rifle shot.

The astronaut could easily be a satellite. Its location could be picked to impact on a particular part of the satellite to do most damage, or to cause many fragments, and if enough fragments are created – well, we’ve all watched Gravity and know what high speed fragments of destroyed satellites can do.

The spider doesn’t even need to get itself into a precise position. If it has many threads going off in various directions, it can quickly withdraw some of them to create a Newtonian reaction to move its center of mass fast into a path. It might sit many meters away from the desired impact position, waiting until the last second to jump in front of the astronaut/satellite/space junk.

What concerns me with this is that the weapon potential lends itself to low budget garden shed outfits such as lone terrorists. It wouldn’t need rockets, or massively expensive equipment. It doesn’t need rapid deployment, since being invisible, could migrate to its required location over days, weeks or months. A large number of them could be invisibly deployed from a back garden ready for use at any time, waiting for the command before simultaneously wiping out hundreds of satellites. It only needs a very small amount of IT attached to some sort of filament spinneret. A few years ago I worked out how to spin graphene filaments at 100m/s:

Spiderman-style silk thrower

If I can do it, others can too, and there are probably many ways to do this other than mine.

If you aren’t SpiderMan, and can accept lower specs, you could make a basic graphene silk thrower and associated IT that fits in the few grams weight budget.

There are many ways to cause havoc in space. Spiders have been sci-fi horror material for decades. Soon space spiders could be quite real.

 

 

Interstellar travel: quantum ratchet drive

Introductory waffle & background state of the art bit

My last blog included a note on my Mars commute system, which can propel spacecraft with people in up to 600km/s. Unfortunately, although 1000 times faster than a bullet, that is still only 0.2% of light speed and it would take about 2000 years to get to our nearest star at that speed, so we need a better solution. Star Trek uses warp drive to go faster than light, and NASA’s Alcubierre drive is the best approximation we have to that so far:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alcubierre_drive

but smarter people than me say it probably won’t work, and almost certainly won’t work any time soon:

https://jalopnik.com/the-painful-truth-about-nasas-warp-drive-spaceship-from-1590330763

If it does work, it will need to use negative energy extracted via the Casimir effect, and if that works, so will my own invention, the Space Anchor:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/06/14/how-the-space-anchor-works/

The Space Anchor would also allow space dogfights like you see in Star Wars. Unless you’re a pedant like me, you probably never think about how space fighters turn in the vacuum of space when you’re watching movies, but wings obviously won’t work well with no atmosphere, and you’d need a lot of fuel to eject out the back at high thrust to turn otherwise, but the space anchor actually locks on to a point in space-time and you can pivot around it to reverse direction without using fuel, thanks to conservation of angular momentum. Otherwise, the anchor drifts with ‘local’ space time expansion and contraction, which essentially creates relativity based ‘currents’ that can pull a spacecraft along at high speed. But enough about Space Anchors. Read my novel Space Anchor to see how much fun they could be.

Space anchors might not work, being only semi-firm sci-fi based at least partly on hypothetical physics. If they don’t work, and warp drive won’t work without using massive amounts of dark energy that I don’t believe exists either, then we’re left with solar sails, laser sails, and assorted ion drives. Solar sails won’t work well too far from a star. Lasers that can power a spacecraft well outside a star system sound expensive and unworkable and the light sails that capture the light mean this could only get to about 10% light speed. Ion drives work OK for modest speeds if you have an on-board power source and some stuff to thrust out the back to get Newtonian reaction. Fancy shaped resonant cavity thrusters try to cheat maths and physics to get a reaction by using special shapes of microwave chambers,

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RF_resonant_cavity_thruster

but I’d personally put these ‘Em-drives’ in the basket with cold fusion and perpetual motion machines. Sure, there have been experiments that supposedly show they work, but so do many experiments for cold fusion and perpetual motion machines, and we know those results are just experimental or interpretational errors. Of the existing techniques that don’t contradict known physics or rely on unverified and debatable hypotheses, the light sails are best and get 10% of light speed at high expense.

A few proposed thruster-based systems use particles collected from the not-quite-empty space as the fuel source and propellant. Again, if we stretch the Casimir effect theory to near breaking point, it may be possible to use virtual particles popping in and out of existence as propellant by allowing them to appear and thrusting them before they vanish, the quantum thruster drive. My own variant of this solution is to use Casimir combs with oscillating interleaving nano-teeth that separate virtual particles before they can annihilate to prolong that time enough to make it feasible. I frankly have no idea whether this would actually work.

Better still would be if we could use a form of propulsion that doesn’t need to throw matter backwards to get reactionary force forwards. If magical microwave chambers and warp drives are no use, how about this new idea of mine:

The Quantum Ratchet Drive

You can explore other theoretical interstellar drives via Google or Wikipedia, but you won’t find my latest idea there – the Quantum Ratchet Drive. I graduated in Theoretical Physics, but this drive is more in the Hypothetical Physics Department, along with my explanations for inflation, dark matter and novel states of matter. That doesn’t mean it is wrong or won’t work though, just that I can’t prove it will work yet. Anyway, faint heart ne’er won fair maid.

You have seen pics of trains that climb steep slopes using a rack and pinion system, effectively gear wheels on a toothed rail so that they don’t slip (not the ones that use a cable). I originally called my idea the quantum rack and pinion drive because it works in a similar way, but actually, the more I think about it, the more appropriate is the analogy with a ratchet, using a gear tooth as a sort of anchor to pull against to get the next little bit of progress. It relies on the fact that fields are quantized and any system will exist in one state and then move up or down to the next quantum state, it can’t stay in between. At this point I feel I need another 50 IQ points to grasp a very slippery idea, so be patient – this is an idea in early stages of development. I’m basically trying to harness the physics that causes particles to switch quantum states, looking at the process in which quantum states change, nature’s ‘snap to grid’ approach, to make a propulsion system out of it.

If we generate an external field that interacts with the field in a nearby microscopic region of space in front of our craft then as the total field approaches a particular quantum threshold, nature will drag that region to the closest quantum state, hopefully creating a tiny force that drags the system to that state. In essence, the local quantum structure becomes a grid onto which the craft can lock. At very tiny scales obviously, but if you add enough tiny distances you eventually get big ones.

But space doesn’t have a fixed grid does it? If we just generate any old field any which way in front of our craft, no progress will happen because nature will be quite happy to have those states in any location in space so no force of movement will be generated. HOWEVER… suppose space did have such a grid, and we could use interaction of the quantum states in the grid cells and our generated field. Then we could get what we want, a toothed rail with which our gearwheels can engage.

So we just need a system that assigns local quantum states to microscopic space regions and that is our rack, then we apply a field to our pinion that is not quite enough to become that state, but is closer than any other one. At some point, there will be a small thrust towards the next state so that it can reach a local minimum energy level. Those tiny thrusts would add up.

We could use any kind of field that our future tech can generate. Our craft would have two field emitters. One produces a nice tidy waveform that maps quantum states onto the space just in front of our craft. A second emitter produces a second field that creates an interaction so that the system wants to come to rest in a region set slightly ahead of the craft’s current position. It would be like a train laying a toothed track just in front of it as it goes along, always positioning the teeth so that the train will fall into the next location.

We could certainly produce EM fields, making a sort of stepper linear induction motor on a mat created by the ship itself. What about strong or weak nuclear forces? Even if stuck with EM, maybe we use rotating nuclei or rotating atoms or molecules, which would move like a microscopic stepper motors across our pre-quantized space grid. Tiny forces acting on individual protons or electrons adding up to macroscopic forces on our spacecraft. If we’re doing it with individual atoms or nuclear particles, the regions of space we impose the fields on would be just ahead of them, not  out in front of the spacecraft. If we’re using interacting EM fields,  then we’re relying on appropriate phasing and beam intensities to do the job.

As I said, early days. Needs work. Also needs a bigger brain. Intuitively this ought to work. It ought to be capable of up to light speed. The big question is where the energy comes from. It isn’t an impulse drive and doesn’t chuck matter out of a rocket nozzle, but it might collect small particles along the way to convert into energy. Or perhaps nature contributes the energy. If so, then this could get light speed travel without fuel and limited on-board energy supply. Just like gravity pulls a train down a hill, perhaps clever phase design could arrange the grid ahead to be always ‘downhill’ in which case this might turn out to be yet another vacuum energy drive. I honestly don’t know. I’m out of my depth, but intuition suggests this shows promise for someone smarter.

 

Mars trips won’t have to take months

It is exciting seeing the resurgence in interest in space travel, especially the prospect that Mars trips are looking increasingly feasible. Every year, far-future projects come a year closer. Mars has been on the agenda for decades, but now the tech needed is coming over the horizon.

You’ve probably already read about Elon Musk’s SpaceX plans, so I won’t bother repeating them here. The first trips will be dangerous but the passengers on the first successful trip will get to go down in history as the first human Mars visitors. That prospect of lasting fame and a place in history plus the actual experience and excitement of doing the trip will add up to more than enough reward to tempt lots of people to join the queue to be considered. A lucky and elite few will eventually land there. Some might stay as the first colonists. It won’t be long after that before the first babies are born on Mars, and their names will certainly be remembered, the first true Martians.

I am optimistic that the costs and travel times involved in getting to Mars can be reduced enormously. Today’s space travel relies on rockets, but my own invention, the Pythagoras Sling, could reduce the costs of getting materials and people to orbit by a factor of 50 or 100 compared the SpaceX rockets, which already are far cheaper than NASA’s. A system introduction paper can be downloaded from:

https://carbondevices.files.wordpress.com/2017/09/pythagoras-sling-article.pdf

Sling

Sadly, in spite of obviously being far more feasible and shorter term than a space elevator, we have not yet been able to get our paper published in a space journal so that is the only source so far.

This picture shows one implementation for non-human payloads, but tape length and scale could be increased to allow low-g human launches some day, or more likely, early systems would allow space-based anchors to be built with different launch architecture for human payloads.

The Sling needs graphene tape, a couple of parachutes or a floating drag platform and a magnetic drive to pull the tape, using standard linear motor principles as used in linear induction motors and rail guns. The tape is simply attached to the rocket and pulled through two high altitude anchors attached to the platforms or parachutes. Here is a pic of the tape drive designed for another use, but the principle is the same. Rail gun technology works well today, and could easily be adapted into this inverse form to drive a suitably engineered tape at incredible speed.

All the components are reusable, but shouldn’t cost much compared to heavy rockets anyway. The required parachutes exist today, but we don’t have graphene tape or the motor to pull it yet. As space industry continues to develop, these will come. The Space Elevator will need millions of tons of graphene, the Sling only needs around 100 kilograms so will certainly be possible decades before a space elevator. The sling configuration can achieve full orbital speeds for payloads using only electrical energy at the ground, so is also much less environmentally damaging than rocketry.

Using tech such as the Sling, material can be put into orbit to make space stations and development factories for all sorts of space activity. One project that I would put high on the priority list would be another tape-pulling launch system, early architecture suggestion here:.

Since it will be in space, laying tape out in a long line would be no real problem, even millions of kms, and with motors arranged periodically along the length, a long tape pointed in the right direction could launch a payload towards a Mars interception system at extreme speeds. We need to think big, since the distances traveled will be big. A launch system weighing 40,000 tons would be large scale engineering but not exceptional, and although graphene today is very expensive as with any novel material, it will become much cheaper as manufacturing technology catches up (if the graphene filament print heads I suggest work as I hope, graphene filament could be made at 200m/s and woven into yarn by a spinneret as it emerges from multiple heads). In the following pics, carbon atoms are fed through nanotubes with the right timing, speed and charges to combine into graphene as they emerge. The second pic shows why the nanotubes need to be tilted towards each other since otherwise the molecular geometry doesn’t work, and this requirement limits the heads to make thin filaments with just two or three carbon rings wide. The second pic mentions carbon foam, which would be perfect to make stratospheric floating platforms as an alternative to using parachutes in the Sling system.

Graphene filament head, ejects graphene filament at 200m/s.

A large ship is of that magnitude, as are some building or bridges. Such a launch system would allow people to get to Mars in 5-12 days, and payloads of g-force tolerant supplies such as water could be sent to arrive in a day. The intercept system at the Mars end would need to be of similar size to catch and decelerate the payload into Mars orbit. The systems at both ends can be designed to be used for launch or intercept as needed.

I’ve been a systems engineer for 36 years and a futurologist for 27 of those. The system solutions I propose should work if there is no better solution available, but since we’re talking about the far future, it is far more likely that better systems will be invented by smarter engineers or AIs by the time we’re ready to use them. Rocketry will probably get us through to the 2040s but after that, I believe these solutions can be made real and Mars trips after that could become quite routine. I present these solutions as proof that the problems can be solved, by showing that potential solutions already exist. As a futurologist, all I really care about is that someone will be able to do it somehow.

 

So, there really is no need to think in terms of months of travel each way, we should think of rapid supply chains and human travel times around a week or two – not so different from the first US immigrants from Europe.

2018 outlook: fragile

Futurists often consider wild cards – events that could happen, and would undoubtedly have high impacts if they do, but have either low certainty or low predictability of timing.  2018 comes with a larger basket of wildcards than we have seen for a long time. As well as wildcards, we are also seeing the intersection of several ongoing trends that are simultaneous reaching peaks, resulting in socio-political 100-year-waves. If I had to summarise 2018 in a single word, I’d pick ‘fragile’, ‘volatile’ and ‘combustible’ as my shortlist.

Some of these are very much in all our minds, such as possible nuclear war with North Korea, imminent collapse of bitcoin, another banking collapse, a building threat of cyberwar, cyberterrorism or bioterrorism, rogue AI or emergence issues, high instability in the Middle East, rising inter-generational conflict, resurgence of communism and decline of capitalism among the young, increasing conflicts within LGBTQ and feminist communities, collapse of the EU under combined pressures from many angles: economic stresses, unpredictable Brexit outcomes, increasing racial tensions resulting from immigration, severe polarization of left and right with the rise of extreme parties at both ends. All of these trends have strong tribal characteristics, and social media is the perfect platform for tribalism to grow and flourish.

Adding fuel to the building but still unlit bonfire are increasing tensions between the West and Russia, China and the Middle East. Background natural wildcards of major epidemics, asteroid strikes, solar storms, megavolcanoes, megatsumanis and ‘the big one’ earthquakes are still there waiting in the wings.

If all this wasn’t enough, society has never been less able to deal with problems. Our ‘snowflake’ generation can barely cope with a pea under the mattress without falling apart or throwing tantrums, so how we will cope as a society if anything serious happens such as a war or natural catastrophe is anyone’s guess. 1984-style social interaction doesn’t help.

If that still isn’t enough, we’re apparently running a little short on Ghandis, Mandelas, Lincolns and Churchills right now too. Juncker, Trump, Merkel and May are at the far end of the same scale on ability to inspire and bring everyone together.

Depressing stuff, but there are plenty of good things coming too. Augmented reality, more and better AI, voice interaction, space development, cryptocurrency development, better IoT, fantastic new materials, self-driving cars and ultra-high speed transport, robotics progress, physical and mental health breakthroughs, environmental stewardship improvements, and climate change moving to the back burner thanks to coming solar minimum.

If we are very lucky, none of the bad things will happen this year and will wait a while longer, but many of the good things will come along on time or early. If.

Yep, fragile it is.

 

Artificial muscles using folded graphene

Slide1

Folded Graphene Concept

Two years ago I wrote a blog on future hosiery where I very briefly mentioned the idea of using folded graphene as synthetic muscles:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2015/11/16/the-future-of-nylon-ladder-free-hosiery/

Although I’ve since mentioned it to dozens of journalists, none have picked up on it, so now that soft robotics and artificial muscles are in the news, I guess it’s about time I wrote it up myself, before someone else claims the idea. I don’t want to see an MIT article about how they have just invented it.

The above pic gives the general idea. Graphene comes in insulating or conductive forms, so it will be possible to make sheets covered with tiny conducting graphene electromagnet coils that can be switched individually to either polarity and generate strong magnetic forces that pull or push as required. That makes it ideal for a synthetic muscle, given the potential scale. With 1.5nm-thick layers that could be anything from sub-micron up to metres wide, this will allow thin fibres and yarns to make muscles or shape change fabrics all the way up to springs or cherry-picker style platforms, using many such structures. Current can be switched on and off or reversed very rapidly, to make continuous forces or vibrations, with frequency response depending on application – engineering can use whatever scales are needed. Natural muscles are limited to 250Hz, but graphene synthetic muscles should be able to go to MHz.

Uses vary from high-rise rescue, through construction and maintenance, to space launch. Since the forces are entirely electromagnetic, they could be switched very rapidly to respond to any buckling, offering high stabilisation.

Slide2

The extreme difference in dimensions between folded and opened state mean that an extremely thin force mat made up of many of these cherry-picker structures could be made to fill almost any space and apply force to it. One application that springs to mind is rescues, such as after earthquakes have caused buildings to collapse. A sheet could quickly apply pressure to prize apart pieces of rubble regardless of size and orientation. It could alternatively be used for systems for rescuing people from tall buildings, fracking or many other applications.

Slide3

It would be possible to make large membranes for a wide variety of purposes that can change shape and thickness at any point, very rapidly.

Slide4

One such use is a ‘jellyfish’, complete with stinging cells that could travel around in even very thin atmospheres all by itself. Upper surfaces could harvest solar power to power compression waves that create thrust. This offers use for space exploration on other planets, but also has uses on Earth of course, from surveillance and power generation, through missile defense systems or self-positioning parachutes that may be used for my other invention, the Pythagoras Sling. That allows a totally rocket-free space launch capability with rapid re-use.

Slide5

Much thinner membranes are also possible, as shown here, especially suited for rapid deployment missile defense systems:

Slide6

Also particularly suited to space exploration o other planets or moons, is the worm, often cited for such purposes. This could easily be constructed using folded graphene, and again for rescue or military use, could come with assorted tools or lethal weapons built in.

Slide7

A larger scale cherry-picker style build could make ejector seats, elevation platforms or winches, either pushing or pulling a payload – each has its merits for particular types of application.  Expansion or contraction could be extremely rapid.

Slide8

An extreme form for space launch is the zip-winch, below. With many layers just 1.5nm thick, expanding to 20cm for each such layer, a 1000km winch cable could accelerate a payload rapidly as it compresses to just 7.5mm thick!

Slide9

Very many more configurations and uses are feasible of course, this blog just gives a few ideas. I’ll finish with a highlight I didn’t have time to draw up yet: small particles could be made housing a short length of folded graphene. Since individual magnets can be addressed and controlled, that enables magnetic powders with particles that can change both their shape and the magnetism of individual coils. Precision magnetic fields is one application, shape changing magnets another. The most exciting though is that this allows a whole new engineering field, mixing hydraulics with precision magnetics and shape changing. The powder can even create its own chambers, pistons, pumps and so on. Electromagnetic thrusters for ships are already out there, and those same thrust mechanisms could be used to manipulate powder particles too, but this allows for completely dry hydraulics, with particles that can individually behave actively or  passively.

Fun!

 

 

BAE Systems & Futurizon share thoughts on the future

I recently visited BAE Systems to give a talk on future tech, including the Pythagoras Sling concept. It was a great place to visit. Afterwards, their Principal Technologist Nick Colosimo and I gave a joint interview on future technologies.

Here is the account from their internal magazine:

The Next Chapter

Quantum rack and pinion drive for interstellar travel

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.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RF_resonant_cavity_thruster

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:

https://www.sciencealert.com/physicists-have-a-weird-new-idea-about-how-the-impossible-em-drive-could-produce-thrust

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.