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Saturday, 12 January 2013

Egyptian girl invents new space propulsion system

Egyptian girl invents new space propulsion system

ion drive

[Image: Flickr user gordontarpley]

A physics student from Egypt's Sohag University, Aisha Mustafa, 19, has patented a new type of propulsion system based on quantum theory that she says could propel space probes and artificial satellites without using any fuel.

According Gizmodo, Aisha's new system exploits the quirky laws of quantum physics which state that in spite of appearances, space really is not vacuum but that it is a seething cauldron of fundamental particle interactions involving creation and destruction of "virtual particles."

Mustafa believes it is possible to use vacuum energy fields to create propulsion and build spacecraft propulsion systems that need little or no fuel to travel in space. According to Fast Company, Mustafa is betting on exploiting quantum effects involved in dynamic Casimir effect and the Casimiri-Polder force. She uses two silicon metallic plates in a vacuum, "like capacitors placed a few micrometers apart." The plates interact with the virtual photons in the quantum field and generate a net force that is either an attraction or a repulsion depending on their arrangement.

According to OnIslam.net, the invention is similar to a hypothetical concept of jet propulsion termed “Differential Sail," proposed by NASA’s Marc G. Millis.

Fast Company reports that Aisha's university was so impressed with her new invention that it assisted her with a patent application. OnIslam.net reports that Mustafa's supervisor, Dr. Ahmed Fikry, who heads the physics department in Sohag University, said “I expect this invention to be highly beneficial in several fields and areas of industries."

The President of Sohag University, Dr. Nabil Nour Eldin Abdellah, said the university facilitates "science clubs" for creative students. He said: “Once we knew about her (Mustafa’s) invention, we encouraged her and provided her with the budget needed through the Science Club for innovative students in the university. This is the case with any other creative student."

According to OnIslam.net, with the retirement of NASA's space shuttle program, the field of space vehicles propulsion is expanding and and growing in importance with ongoing search for new methods of space travel that are faster, safer, cheaper and easier. A rich variety of new ideas in propulsive systems are being proposed some of which are beyond current technological capabilities to implement.

Gizmodo reports that Mustafa intends to further study and develop the design so that it may be tested out.

In a popular Egyptian morning program "Sabah El kheir Ya Masr"(Good Morning Egypt), Mustafa expressed her appreciation to her faculty and university staff for providing materials, resources and support. She, however, lamented that there is no funding for a department of space science in her university and in Egyptian universities in general. She said this prevents development and research in the field of space technology. She said: “Departments of astronomy and physics are only available. Although they are related to space sciences but unfortunately they aren’t into the specific field of my invention and they can’t practically test or implement it.”

Mustafa's Space Drive:

An Egyptian Student's Quantum Physics Invention



  By Kit Eaton


Remember the name, because you might see it again: Aisha Mustafa, a 19-year-old Egyptian physics student, patented a new type of propulsion system for spacecraft that uses cutting edge quantum physics instead of thrusters.

First, a little background: One of the strange quantum facts at work in Mustafa's engine idea is that there's no such thing as a vacuum, devoid of particles, waves, and energy. Instead the universe's supposedly empty spaces are filled with a roiling sea of particles and anti-particles that pop into existence, then annihilate each other in such a short space of time that you can't readily detect them.

Mustafa invented a way of tapping this quantum effect via what's known as the dynamic Casimir effect. This uses a "moving mirror" cavity, where two very reflective very flat plates are held close together, and then moved slightly to interact with the quantum particle sea. It's horribly technical, but the end result is that Mustafa's use of shaped silicon plates similar to those used in solar power cells results in a net force being delivered. A force, of course, means a push or a pull and in space this equates to a drive or engine.

In terms of space propulsion, this is amazing. Most forms of spacecraft rely on the rocket principle to work: Some fuel is made energetic and then thrust out of an engine, pushing the rocket forward. It's tricky stuff to get right, particularly on Earth, which is why we shouldn't be surprised SpaceX's recent launch stopped at the critical moment due to a problem with one of its chemical rocket engines. For in-space maneuvering, many different types of rocket are used, but even exotic ones like ion drives (shown in a NASA image above) need fuel.

The only space drive that doesn't involve hauling fuel and complex systems into orbit is a solar sail. And Mustafa's invention can, rudimentarily, be compared to a solar sail...because it doesn't need "fuel" as such, and exerts just the tiniest push compared to the thundery flames of SpaceX's rockets. It's potential is enormous--because of its mechanical simplicity and reliability it could make satellite propulsion lighter, cheaper, and thus indirectly lower the cost of space missions of all sorts.

And if you want proof that the tiniest of pushes can propel a spacecraft, check this out: Two Pioneer space probes, launched in the 1970s, are the farthest manmade objects from Earth...but they're not as far away as they should be. Over the course of a year they deviate by hundreds of kilometers from where all our science says they must be in orbit, and it's been found that it's down to the tiniest of pushes coming from radiators on-board that radiate heat waves out slghtly more in one direction than another.

Aisha's invention is so promising that her university's staff aided with a patent application. She intends to study the design further in the hope of testing it out for real in space, but as the OnIslam.net site points out she notes that there's no funding for a department of space science and this prevents important research being carried out in strife-ridden Egypt.

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