Nicholas Newman Eniday May 2016
This year is an exciting time for science fiction fans, with films like Star Wars, Star Trek, Independence Day, and the Martian out on release. The trouble is very little is ever said about how the vessels you see dashing across the galaxy are powered. The possibilities are endless including rockets, atomic, solar cells, reaction motors, solar sails, warp drive etc. Nicholas Newman looks at the various ways current and future spacecraft are likely to be powered…
It’s undeniable that 2016 is an exciting time for science-fiction fans, with films like “Star Wars,” “Independence Day” and “The Martian” out on release. However, for those of us who like to know how things really work, these fictionalised accounts say very little about what actually powers space crafts as they dash across the galaxy. The possibilities are apparently endless, ranging from rockets, nuclear power, solar cells, reaction motors, solar sails to warp drive. Yet, despite the apparent ease with which “Star Trek’s” Captain Kirk or “Star Wars’” Han Solo cross the galaxy, the scientific reality is that getting into space is incredibly difficult, and to make the 4.37 light-year journey to Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system to our solar system, may well be impossible.
Back on earth, chemical-based rockets still prevail. Every few days, Soyuz and Arianespace rockets blast off with supplies and astronauts to the International Space Station, or place satellites in orbit, or launch deep space probes to far distant Mars or Saturn. Space agencies, such as America’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Russia’s Russian Federal Space Agency (ROSCOSMOS) and Europe’s European Space Agency (ESA), all rely on chemical-based rocket engines to place objects into orbit around the earth, and the really astonishing thing is that much of the technology in use today would look familiar to rocket experts working more than half a century ago, such as Russia’s Sergei Pavlovich Korolev and America’s Wernher von Braun.