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The quantum vacuum plasma thruster (or Q-thruster) is a theoretical deep-space thruster that uses the quantum vacuum fluctuations to propel a spacecraft. A spacecraft fitted with such a thruster, would not need to carry any propellant for its operation. The research team lead by Harold "Sonny" White at the NASA Johnson Space Center is investigating this possibility.
Theory of operation
The research team claims the "Q-thruster" utilizes the quantum vacuum fluctuations of empty space as a "propellant". The existence of quantum vacuum fluctuations is not disputed, because experiments with the quantum mechanical Casimir effect have unambiguously demonstrated that quantum vacuum fluctuations do exist. What remains to be proven is that these fluctuations can be utilized for this practical purpose.
The Q-thruster operates on the principles of magnetohydrodynamics (MHD), the same principles and equations of motion used by a conventional plasma thruster. The difference is that the Q-thruster uses the atomic particles spontaneously produced by quantum vacuum fluctuations as its propellant. The atomic particles produced by the fluctuations are subsequently electrically ionized to form a plasma. The now electrically charged plasma is then is exposed to a crossed electric and magnetic field, inducing a force on the particles of the plasma in the E×B direction, which is orthogonal to the applied fields. The Q-thruster would not technically be a reactionless drive, because it expels the plasma and thus produces force on the spacecraft in the opposite direction, like a conventional rocket engine. However, this action does not require the spacecraft to carry any propellant. This theory suggests much higher specific impulses are available for Q-thrusters, because they only consume electrical power and thus are limited only by their power supply's energy storage densities. Preliminary test results suggest thrust levels of between 1000–4000 μN; specific force performance of 0.1 N/kW, and an equivalent specific impulse of ~1x1012 s.
The research group is attempting to gather performance data to support development of a Q-thruster engineering prototype for reaction-control-system applications in the force range of 0.1–1 N with a corresponding input electrical power range of 0.3–3 kW. The group plans to begin by testing a refurbished test article to improve the historical performance of a 2006 experiment that attempted to demonstrate the Woodward effect. The photograph shows the test article and the plot diagram shows the thrust trace from a 500g load cell in experiments performed in 2006.
The group hopes that testing the device on a high-fidelity torsion pendulum (1–4 mN at 10–40 W) will unambiguously demonstrate the feasibility of this concept. The team is maintaining a dialogue with the ISS national labs office for an on-orbit detailed test objective (DTO) to test the Q-thruster's operation in the vacuum and zero-gravity of outer space.
- Casimir effect
- Unruh effect
- Woodward effect
- Reactionless drive
- White–Juday warp-field interferometer — Another proposed device from the same NASA laboratory.
- "Eagleworks Laboratories: Advanced Propulsion Physics Research". NASA. 2 December 2011. Retrieved 10 January 2013.
- White, H.; March, P. (2012). "Advanced Propulsion Physics: Harnessing the Quantum Vacuum". Nuclear and Emerging Technologies for Space. Retrieved 29 January 2013.
- "Propulsion on an Interstellar Scale – the Quantum Vacuum Plasma Thruster". engineering.com. 11 December 2012. Retrieved 29 January 2013.
- March, P.; Palfreyman, A. (2006). "The Woodward Effect: Math Modeling and Continued Experimental Verifications at 2 to 4 MHz". In M. S. El-Genk. Proceedings of Space Technology and Applications International Forum (STAIF) (American Institute of Physics, Melville, New York). Retrieved 29 January 2013.
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