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Smokeless rockets launching soon?

A propulsion system that emits nothing but heat could revolutionize the space and transportation industries. Photo: Professor moves rockets closer to warp speed

CORONADO, Calif.--Only time and money separate the current state of rocket propulsion science from the engine rooms of Star Trek's Starfleet, according to a university professor.

James Woodward, a history professor at California State University in Fullerton, presented his research into Mach-Lorentz thrusters Wednesday at the Future in Review conference here. Mach-Lorentz thrusters (MLTs), assuming they can be scaled up from lab tests, could provide a new source of propulsion that "puts out thrust without blowing stuff out the tailpipe," Woodward said.

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MLTs are based on Mach's principle, which suggests that all particles in the universe have an effect on each other, and the work of Hendrik Lorentz, who conducted research into the movement of charged particles in a magnetic field. Woodward has constructed an engine that takes advantage of the fact that objects produce energy when their mass changes slightly, he said.

Woodward used capacitors to change the mass of an object and then applied a current to that mass. That produces a small amount of thrust. Increasing the voltage and frequency of the current increases the strength of the thrust, to the point where the engine could be used to adjust the orbit of a satellite, or push a rocket into space.

The MLT is similar to the "impulse engines" used by the starships in the "Star Trek" television series and movies, although on a much smaller scale. At some point, the MLT might be able to take things further and send space travelers across the universe at something approaching warp speed, but that's way out in the distance.

Only about a dozen of these MLTs have been produced in Woodward's labs, but they work, Woodward said. The issue now is getting the funding together to drive further research, and the time needed to overcome hurdles as these MLTs scale up to the size needed to send a payload into orbit. Right now, these devices produce a lot of heat as a byproduct that must be removed from the thruster. Early applications for MLTs could include booster rockets on satellites to allow them to adjust their position in orbit, he said.