How Electromagnetic Propulsion Will Work

For decades, the only means of space travel have been rocket engines that run off of chemical propulsion. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, aerospace engineers are devising innovative ways to take us to the stars, including light propulsion, nuclear-fusion propulsion and antimatter propulsion. A new type of spacecraft that lacks any propellant is also being proposed. This type of spacecraft, which would be jolted through space by electromagnets, could take us farther than any of these other methods.

When cooled to extremely low temperatures, electromagnets demonstrate an unusual behavior: For the first few nanoseconds after electricity is applied to them, they vibrate. David Goodwin, a program manager at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of High Energy and Nuclear Physics, proposes that if this vibration can be contained in one direction, it could provide enough of a jolt to send spacecraft farther and faster into space than any other propulsion method in development.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is typically not in the business of developing propulsion systems for NASA, but it is continually working on better superconducting magnets and very rapid, high-power solid-state switches. In the mid-1990s, Goodwin chaired a session for NASA’s Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Project, which is working to design propulsion systems that have no propellant, use a very high energy system and can eventually overcome inertia.

“It seemed that there should be some way to use this technology that [DOE scientists] were developing to help NASA meet their goals, and it basically sprang from that,” Goodwin said. What sprang from the DOE research was Goodwin’s idea for a space propulsion system that uses super-cooled, superconducting magnets vibrating 400,000 times per second. If this rapid pulse can be directed in one direction, it could create a very efficient space propulsion system with the ability to achieve speeds on the order of a fraction of 1 percent of the speed of light.

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