New Scientist Print Edition
05 January 2006
from NewScientist Website
According to the paper, this hyperdrive motor would propel a craft through another dimension at enormous speeds. It could leave Earth at lunchtime and get to the moon in time for dinner. There's just one catch: the idea relies on an obscure and largely unrecognized kind of physics.
Can they possibly be serious?
And despite the bafflement of most physicists at the theory that supposedly underpins it, Pavlos Mikellides, an aerospace engineer at the Arizona State University in Tempe who reviewed the winning paper, stands by the committee's choice.
Unique it certainly is. If the experiment gets the go-ahead and works, it could reveal new interactions between the fundamental forces of nature that would change the future of space travel.
Forget spending six months or more holed up in a rocket on the way to Mars, a round trip on the hyperdrive could take as little as 5 hours. All our worries about astronauts' muscles wasting away or their DNA being irreparably damaged by cosmic radiation would disappear overnight. What's more the device would put travel to the stars within reach for the first time.
But can the hyperdrive really get off the ground?
The answer to that question hinges on
the work of a little-known German physicist. Burkhard Heim
began to explore the hyperdrive propulsion concept in the 1950s as a
spin-off from his attempts to heal the biggest divide in physics:
the rift between quantum mechanics and Einstein's general theory
The two theories are immensely successful in their separate spheres. The clash arises when it comes to describing the basic structure of space. In general relativity, space-time is an active, malleable fabric. It has four dimensions - three of space and one of time - that deform when masses are placed in them. In Einstein's formulation, the force of gravity is a result of the deformation of these dimensions.
Quantum theory, on the other
hand, demands that space is a fixed and passive stage, something
simply there for particles to exist on. It also suggests that space
itself must somehow be made up of discrete, quantum elements.
Originally he had four extra dimensions,
but he discarded two of them believing that they did not produce any
forces, and settled for adding a new two-dimensional "sub-space"
onto Einstein's four-dimensional space-time.
But in the four dimensions we know, you
cannot change the strength of gravity simply by cranking up the
Wernher von Braun, the German engineer who at the time was leading the Saturn rocket program that later launched astronauts to the moon, approached Heim about his work and asked whether the expensive Saturn rockets were worthwhile.
And in a letter in 1964, the German relativity theorist Pascual Jordan, who had worked with the distinguished physicists Max Born and Werner Heisenberg and was a member of the Nobel committee, told Heim that his plan was so important,
But all this attention only led Heim to retreat from the public eye.
This was partly because of his severe
multiple disabilities, caused by a lab accident when he was still in
his teens. But Heim was also reluctant to disclose his theory
without an experiment to prove it. He never learned English because
he did not want his work to leave the country. As a result, very few
people knew about his work and no one came up with the necessary
research funding. In 1958 the aerospace company Bölkow did offer
some money, but not enough to do the proposed experiment.
He outlined this work in 1977 in the Max
Planck Institute's journal Zeitschrift für Naturforschung,
his only peer-reviewed paper. In an abstruse way that few physicists
even claim to understand, the formulae work out a particle's mass
starting from physical characteristics, such as its charge and
Even the accepted means of estimating
mass theoretically, known as lattice quantum chromo-dynamics, only
gets to between 1 and 10 per cent of the experimental values.
Two years after Heim's death in 2001, his long-term collaborator Illobrand von Ludwiger calculated the mass formula using a more accurate gravitational constant.
After publishing the mass formulae, Heim never really looked at hyperspace propulsion again. Instead, in response to requests for more information about the theory behind the mass predictions, he spent all his time detailing his ideas in three books published in German. It was only in 1980, when the first of his books came to the attention of a retired Austrian patent officer called Walter Dröscher, that the hyperspace propulsion idea came back to life.
Dröscher looked again at Heim's ideas
and produced an "extended" version, resurrecting the dimensions that
Heim originally discarded. The result is "Heim-Dröscher space",
a mathematical description of an eight-dimensional universe.
But there's more to it than that.
These are, Dröscher claims, related to the familiar gravitational force:
This force is a result of the interaction of Heim's fifth and sixth dimensions and the extra dimensions that Dröscher introduced. It produces pairs of "gravitophotons", particles that mediate the interconversion of electromagnetic and gravitational energy. Dröscher teamed up with Jochem Häuser, a physicist and professor of computer science at the University of Applied Sciences in Salzgitter, Germany, to turn the theoretical framework into a proposal for an experimental test.
The paper they produced, "Guidelines for
a space propulsion device based on Heim's quantum theory", is what
won the AIAA's award last year.
But this one, Dröscher insists, is different.
And he and Häuser have suggested an
experiment to prove it.
While that's 500,000 times the strength of Earth's magnetic field, pulsed magnets briefly reach field strengths up to 80 tesla. And Dröscher and Häuser go further.
With a faster-spinning ring and an even stronger magnetic field, gravitophotons would interact with conventional gravity to produce a repulsive anti-gravity force, they suggest.
Dröscher is hazy about the details, but
he suggests that a spacecraft fitted with a coil and ring could be
propelled into a multidimensional
hyperspace. Here the constants of
nature could be different, and even the speed of light could be
several times faster than we experience. If this happens, it would
be possible to reach Mars in less than 3 hours and a star 11 light
years away in only 80 days, Dröscher and Häuser say.
The majority of physicists have never heard of Heim theory, and most of those contacted by New Scientist said they couldn't make sense of Dröscher and Häuser's description of the theory behind their proposed experiment.
Following Heim theory is hard work even without Dröscher's extension, says Markus Pössel, a theoretical physicist at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Potsdam, Germany. Several years ago, while an undergraduate at the University of Hamburg, he took a careful look at Heim theory.
He says he finds it,
The general consensus seems to be that Dröscher and Häuser's theory is incomplete at best, and certainly extremely difficult to follow. And it has not passed any normal form of peer review, a fact that surprised the AIAA prize reviewers when they made their decision.
At the moment, the main reason for taking the proposal seriously must be Heim theory's uncannily successful prediction of particle masses. Maybe, just maybe, Heim theory really does have something to contribute to modern physics.
It may be a long while before we find out if he's right.
In its present design, Dröscher and Häuser's experiment requires a magnetic coil several meters in diameter capable of sustaining an enormous current density. Most engineers say that this is not feasible with existing materials and technology, but Roger Lenard, a space propulsion researcher at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico thinks it might just be possible.
Sandia runs an X-ray generator known as the Z machine which,
For now, though, Lenard considers the theory too shaky to justify the use of the Z machine.
And he developed a photographic memory.
They say it unites quantum mechanics and
general relativity, can predict the masses of the building blocks of
matter from first principles, and can even explain the state of the
universe 13.7 billion years ago.