“I always had the suspicion that the thrust could be some thermal or vibration artifact,” says Tajmar. Twice as long as the Empire State Building and assembled in-orbit, the spacecraft was part of a larger project preceded by interstellar probes and telescopic observation of target star systems. Hand tools are scattered around Woodward’s desk among boxes full of new ball bearings, stacks of crystalline disks, and scraps of metal shim that Woodward has cut into electrodes. Although it explained the discrepancy between their results and what Tajmar saw in his lab, it also made their promise to NASA—to reliably produce tens of micronewtons of thrust by the end of the grant—seem downright impossible.They spent the next six months struggling to get their device to put out more thrust. Sure, it was only scooting a half millimeter, but at least it was visible.Seeing may be believing, but Woodward and Fearn both say they reacted to their results with more suspicion than jubilance. By repeating this process over and over, Woodward figured, the Mach-effect thruster should accelerate. He found himself drawn to fringe research topics, particularly those having to do with gravity, which he knew would make it hard to get a job. Do not reproduce without permission. It will be approximately 6,800 years before Neowise returns to the inner parts of the solar system.Jim Woodward’s peers have long dismissed his ideas about gravity and inertia. The treatments came with complications—Woodward experienced heart failure and lost the ability to walk without a pair of canes—but he survived.Woodward beat stage IV lung cancer, but the therapies left him unable to walk without two canes.Woodward’s favorite Einstein quote is “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous,” and his cancer ordeal only reinforced his belief in its fundamental truth. The ships that allow them to do this, maybe they use a warp drive, maybe they "fold space," maybe have a faster-than-light (FTL) or "jump" drive.However, the physics that govern our Universe do allow for travel that is close to the speed of light, even though getting to that speed would require a tremendous amount of energy.Those same laws, however, also tell us that near-light-speed travel comes with all sorts of challenges. “It was an obvious thing to do.” As an academic historian, he’d enjoy the job security that comes with uncontroversial research and still have the freedom to study fringe gravitational topics as an avocation. Hand tools are scattered around Woodward’s desk among boxes full of new ball bearings, stacks of crystalline disks, and scraps of metal shim that Woodward has cut into electrodes. Some of the vibrational frequencies harmonize as they roll through the device, and when the oscillations sync up in just the right way, the small drive lurches forward.This might not sound like the secret to interstellar travel, but if that small lurch can be sustained, a spacecraft could theoretically produce thrust for as long as it had electric power. But that doesn't necessarily make it easy, and it certainly doesn't mean we'll achieve it in our lifetimes, let alone this century. “I'd say there's between a 1-in-10 and 1-in-10,000,000 chance that it’s real, and probably toward the higher end of that spectrum,” says McDonald. “I wouldn’t recommend it as a career path.”The electromagnetism stuff was bad enough, but it was Woodward’s emerging ideas about inertia that really got them riled up. One test will be to let the device run at its resonant vibrational frequency for minutes or hours at a time. “Jim is a master of doing amazing things with next to nothing,” says Mahood, his former graduate student who helped him design and build many of the early devices.As part of the NASA grant, Woodward and Fearn were tasked with both boosting the performance of their thrusters and finding a way to put them to practical use. (Even more exotic forms of propulsion, such as ion thrusters, still require propellant.) Mike McDonald, an aerospace engineer at the Naval Research Laboratory in Maryland, will be among the first to do so. “I figured we'd still be struggling along in the 1- to 5-micronewton range.” For the first time, the pair could see the MEGA thruster lurch forward with their own eyes. Inside was a collection of metallic devices with wires protruding from their exposed electromechanical guts. “There was just one coincidence after another,” Woodward says. The experimental data won’t lie, but if Woodward hasn’t discovered the interstellar engine we’ve been waiting for, he’s kept the dream alive for the next generation of would-be star surfers who might.WIRED is where tomorrow is realized. NASA's 100-Year Starship Project Sets Sights on Interstellar Travel. “It can travel at speeds up to the speed of light in a vacuum with only consumption of electric power. “If somebody figured out how the hell to do something like that, they probably aren’t an awful lot smarter than I am,” Woodward recalls thinking at the time. Now he believes he has the data that will prove him right—and could make interstellar travel possible for humans. In other words, it would create thrust without propellant.Woodward called these temporary changes in mass “Mach effects,” and the engine that could use them a Mach-effect thruster.
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