For millennia, skygazers have imagined what it might be like to wander among the stars. Long considered a quixotic pipe dream, interstellar travel is now taking shape as a quantifiable engineering challenge for space scientists around the world.
Last week, NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program awarded Phase I funding (roughly $125,000) to two proposals outlining propulsion systems that could enable future spacecraft to sail the extrasolar seas. NIAC is a pipeline for visionary, sci-fi-adjacent ideas for the future of spaceflight, so interstellar travel is right at home alongside other 2017 recipients (which include concepts for asteroid-dismantling softbots and synthetic organisms that create Martian farmland).
One of the proposals, entitled “Mach Effects for In Space Propulsion: Interstellar Mission,” is backed by decades of experiments and research into the Mach effect, which predicts that an object undergoing acceleration will fluctuate in mass when there is a change in its internal energy.
James Woodward, a professor at California State University, Fullerton and the author of Making Starships and Stargates, pioneered the concept of a drive powered by the Mach effect, an endeavor that has interested scientists and casual space nerds worldwide (there’s even a niche subreddit for it).
The idea is to use an electrostrictive transducer to convert the effect’s predicted mass fluctuations into thrust. This would create a propellantless engine, one of the holy grails of propulsion.