Special report: space exploration
Robin McKie, science editor
Sunday January 7, 2001
Warp-drive engines - Scotty's pride and joy on the Starship Enterprise - could soon be propelling spacecraft across the solar system.
This extraordinary idea has been adopted by a growing group of world-ranking physicists who believe that soon spaceships could be designed to run on energy extracted from empty space - enabling them to fly for centuries without fuel.
Scientists are to hold their first international conference of the subject - supported by the British National Space Centre - in Brighton this month. Delegates will include Nobel prize winner Harry Kroto, as well as Russian, American and European space officials.
It has also been revealed that the United States Air Force and the US Navy have set up secret projects aimed at developing 'zero-point energy' engines, while the US space agency Nasa has launched its Breakthrough Propulsion Physics project to investigate similar rocket devices.
In addition, British Aerospace has confirmed it has launched a research programme - codenamed Project Greenglow - to study 'the possibility of the control of gravitational fields'.
'The last century was the atomic age, but this one could well turn out to be the zero-point age,' said conference delegate Dr Harold Puthoff, director of the Institute for Advanced Studies, in Austin, Texas. 'We are at the stage that the fathers of the atomic bomb were at when they put together their first test nuclear reactor in the early Forties - and look what happened a few years later.'
The basis for a zero-point engine rests on the recent startling discovery that a vacuum, far from being a pocket of nothingness, actually churns and seethes with unseen activity.
This cosmic unrest is caused by quantum fluctuations, tiny ripples of energy - called zero-points - in the fabric of space and time. By interfering with these fluctuations, it should be possible to tap their energy, say the physicists.
'It's almost a cosmic free lunch,' said Graham Ellis, organiser of the First International Field Propulsion Meeting at Sussex University. 'You would tap these quantum fluctuations and pick up free energy for your rocket as you flew through space.'
So far, only relatively crude demonstrations of the power of quantum fluctuations have been carried out. In one set of experiments - carried out by physicists led by the late Nobel prize winner Hendrik Casimir - two metal plates were clamped and held together by zero-point forces.
'The crucial point is that the plates were brought together with a force that heated them up very slightly,' said Puthoff. 'It's not enough to run a starship, but it did demonstrate that it is possible to tap the energy field of a vacuum and turn it into power.'
One proposal for creating a quantum fluctuation space-drive is based on the the idea that these tiny energy ripples hold objects back as they fly through space. They are responsible for the phenomenon of inertia.
'If we could counter this effect, rockets would need much less fuel to overcome their own inertia, and would fly through space with far less effort,' added Puthoff.
'We also believe electrons get the energy to whizz round the nucleus of an atom without slowing down because they are tapping quantum fluctuations of empty space. If we could fiddle with that field - we have ideas how to do it - we could destabilise atoms and get power from them.'
The crucial point of a zero-point engine is that it would run without liquid or solid fuel, or at least very little of such propellants. It would merely require some electricity from solar power, the rest would be provided by the energy of empty space.
By contrast, current space rockets use 96 per cent of their own weight in hydrogen and oxygen fuel, leaving very little room for payloads. Hence the $100 billion price tag that has been put on the construction of the International Space Station.
As Dr Marc Millis of Nasa's Breakthrough project put it: 'We have to discover a new way to eliminate or reduce dramatically the amount of propellent we take into space.' If delegates at Brighton are right, we may soon find a way.
'If we are right, we should be able to build our first small rockets and use them to keep satellites in their correct orbit in about five years,' said Graham Ellis. 'After that, there will no virtually no limit to the potential of these things.'