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Star Trek Science: Here comes the Impulse Engine!

Star Trek fans take note: Have a seat before you read the next sentence or prepare to swoon.

University of Alabama-Huntsville (UAH) aerospace engineers working with NASA, Boeing and Oak Ridge National Laboratory are investigating how to build fusion impulse rocket engines for extremely high-speed space travel.

“Star Trek fans love it, especially when we call the concept an impulse drive, which is what it is,” says team member Ross Cortez, an aerospace engineering Ph.D. candidate at UAH’s Aerophysics Research Center.

Stay seated Trekkies, because there’s more.

“The fusion fuel we’re focusing on is deuterium [a stable isotope of hydrogen] and Li6 [a stable isotope of the metal lithium] in a crystal structure. That’s basically dilithium crystals we’re using,” Cortez says, referring to the real-world equivalent of the fictional element used to power Star Trek’s Starship Enterprise.

While this engine, if produced, wouldn’t generate a fraction of the velocity as the faster-than-light warp drives envisioned in the TV shows, books and movies, it could produce speeds that exceed other not-science-fiction-based systems that rocket scientists are investigating.

Their ultimate goal is to develop a nuclear fusion propulsion system by 2030 that can spirit spacecraft from Earth to Mars in around three months—about twice as fast as researchers think they could go with a nuclear fission engine, another scheme that is being investigated but has not yet been built.

Their current design has a spacecraft with the impulse engines being built in low Earth orbit, so the thrusters and ship wouldn’t need to cope with the atmosphere or achieving escape velocity. That doesn’t mean it would be a lightweight when fully assembled, though. Cortez says the craft could tip the scales at almost 500 tons.

Major problems to solve

There’s a big gap between hopes and goals, though. For decades, nuclear fusion researchers have worked to harness the huge amounts of energy generated from slamming atoms together so hard they fuse. Their efforts have led to scientific progress, but the goal of getting more energy out of a fusion reaction than what is required to smash them together at amazingly high speeds has so far proven elusive.

Last week, Sandia National Laboratory investigators said they are getting closer to “break-even,” the holy grail of research that will see the same amount or more energy released from a nuclear fusion reaction than that which was put in.

“We’re interested in deep-space exploration,” says Dr. Jason Cassibry, a UAH engineering professor and the head of the research team. “Right now humans are stuck in low Earth orbit, but we want to explore the solar system. We’re trying to come up with a system that will demonstrate break-even for thermonuclear propulsion.”

To really start getting around the solar system, spacecraft will need to go much faster than they do now.

According to astronomy professor Courtney Seligman, the next date Earth will be closest to Mars after the team’s 2030 objective will be in May 2031, when the two planets will be 51.4 million miles apart. For the team’s fusion-powered spacecraft to reach the red planet in three months at that point, it would have to travel at almost 24,000 miles per hour, or about 10 times the muzzle velocity of a bullet fired from an assault rifle.

(conceptual diagram of the team’s fusion impulse engine. Image courtesy Ross Cortez/UAH)

Z-pinch fusion and magnetic nozzles

To hit this phenomenal speed, the researchers are investigating something called z-pinch fusion as a source of propulsion. Cortez says the technique takes a cylindrical array of super-thin lithium wires and puts a massive electric current through them. The electricity—millions of amps are being sent through the wires in 100 nanosecond pulses, which could produce 3 terawatts of output power—creates a magnetic field around the array and vaporizes the wires to form plasma. The magnetic field pinches the plasma until it collapses on a core of deuterium and lithium, which they hope will cause its atoms to fuse and result in a massive release of energy.

“What we’re aiming for is to get enough compression and heat in the z-pinch implosion to cause the fusion fuel to react,” Cortez says. “With the energy that would release, we could get millions of pounds of thrust out the back of this thing—on the order of Saturn-V-class thrust.”

After achieving the proper speed, the engines would be shut down and the craft would coast to its target.

Besides figuring out the fusion problem, another obstacle to their goal is how to contain and direct the resulting energy to generate thrust—no small task because the reaction would create temperatures in the millions of degrees Celsius, enough to vaporize any known material. To solve this problem, part of the team is working on another line of research, which seeks to develop a “magnetic nozzle.” This would use directed magnetic fields to guide the energy out of the engine.

“We’re facing some pretty heavy problems to getting this thing working; it won’t be a cinch,” Cortez says. “But we’re very ambitious and we’ve got a lot of great ideas. Put enough bright people to work on it and you’re going to get gold or, in this case, fusion.”

But even if they don’t reach their objective of developing the z-pinch fusion propulsion system, the group’s work will likely be useful in the global effort to develop terrestrial fusion reactors as a source of clean, limitless energy.

The major hurdles have not yet shaken Cortez’s optimism, because he keeps thinking of what success might mean: “How could I not stay interested? With this work, eventually, I might have the chance of seeing Jupiter up close or help humanity colonize Mars.”

(UAH doctoral candidate Ross Cortez assembles a device that generates massive bursts of electricity for fusion propulsion research.)

Top Image: A conceptual model of the University of Alabama-Huntsville’s fusion impulse propulsion spacecraft. Courtesy Ross Cortez/UAH.

Michael Keller is the Managing Editor of Txchnologist. His science, technology and international reporting work has appeared online and in newspapers, magazines and books, including the graphic novel Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Reach him at

‘STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS’ — New Movie Poster Leaked?

Is this the New Poster for JJ’s new movie? Maybe so…Maybe Not… Either way, next year’s sequel to J.J. Abrams’ 2009 “Star Trek” reboot officially has a name: “Star Trek Into Darkness.” 


According to IFC,  the title will deviate from the previous series’ sequel-naming formula by omitting the colon previously used in titles like “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” instead going into territory that the “Dark Knight” and “Die Hard” have explored before. Damon Lindelof, who co-wrote the script with Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, had previously promised that the sequel title would drop the colon.

“There have been more conversations about what we’re going to call it than went into actually shooting it at this point,” he told MTV News at Comic-Con,  adding that it can’t be “Star Trek 2″ because that’s what “Wrath of Khan” is technically called. “That was the genius of Nolan. There was ‘Batman Begins,’ and now they’re just going to be the ‘Dark Knights’ and not going to have 2′s. It’s hard to do movies without colons.”

He added, “There’s no word that comes after the colon after ‘Star Trek’ that’s cool. Not that ‘Star Trek: Insurrection’ or ‘First Contact’ aren’t good titles, it’s just that everything that people are turned off about when it comes to ‘Trek’ is represented by the colon.”

“Star Trek Into Darkness”flies theaters on May 17, 2013. In a June interview while promoting their drama “People Like Us,” Kurtzman and “Star Trek” star Chris Pine gave me a hint of what to expect in the sequel:

“What was really kind of fun for all of us on the first movie is that we basically got to show the bridge crew coming together. And I think that the mistake that we didn’t want to make in the sequel was assuming that just because they’re together they’re the finely tuned machine that you fell in love (with) from the original series. They still have a lot of work and a lot of growing to get to that place,” Kurtzman said.

“So it’s a lot of fun I think to watch the characters struggle through a lot of insanely huge challenges. I can certainly speak to the scope of the movie — and as big as the first one was, the second one’s even bigger. And the key for all of us was making sure we were holding on to character the whole time, but I think it’s gonna be a lot of fun.”

“I think the film takes people on a journey from Point A to Point B, and Kirk is still on his way to Z, let’s say. He’s still on his way to becoming the captain that we all know him to be,” Pine added.

“So you’ll probably find pieces of that rebellious Kirk in the new installment, but I think really what Kirk’s personal adventure is about is learning how to be a captain, learning what it means to be a leader of men and women, learning what it means to be a true, responsible kind of fully realized man in a position of incredible responsibility.

“I think the (special) effects and explosions are just as great if not greater in this new installment, but I think it’s matched by really strong and really interesting character development.”

For more Star Trek movie news…

Higgs-Boson Gives Time Travel Idea New Life!

Once thought a dead issue, the idea of time travel was given new life this week as scientists interpret new data.

In March of 2011, Gadling reported time travel was to be tested at Vanderbilt University. Using the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator, scientists hoped to find the mysterious Higgs Boson particle, the particle that physicists invoke to explain why particles like protons, neutrons and electrons have mass.

“One of the major goals of the collider is to find the elusive Higgs boson. If the collider succeeds in producing the Higgs boson, some scientists predict that it will create a second particle, called the Higgs singlet, at the same time,” reported Vanderbilt’s research news.

Professor Tom Weiler and graduate fellow Chui Man Ho thought these singlets should have the ability to jump into an extra, fifth dimension where they can move either forward or backward in time and reappear in the future or past.

“One of the attractive things about this approach to time travel is that it avoids all the big paradoxes,” Weiler said at the time. “Because time travel is limited to these special particles, it is not possible for a man to travel back in time and murder one of his parents before he himself is born, for example.”

This week, researchers from the CERN particle physics laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, analyzed data from the Large Hadron Collider and are “almost certain that they had proven the existence of the Higgs boson, the most sought-after particle in all of physics,” says a CNN report.

The new information comes after Illinois researchers said earlier in the week that scientists had come closer to proving that the particle exists but had been unable to reach a definitive conclusion.

No information yet on the Higgs singlet. But proving the existence of the Higgs boson would most likely give new life to the idea of time travel. Not much new life, but some. Professor Weller noted, “if scientists could control the production of Higgs singlets, they might be able to send messages to the past or future.”

Baby steps.

by Chris Owen (RSS feed) on Jul 5th 2012

Shape Shifters on the way? Next up: Klingon Cloaking Device!

Michio Kaku: Shape-Shifting Technology Is Coming
Big Think Editors on October 12, 2010, 12:00 AM

Physicist and Big Think blogger Michio Kaku is the closest thing the world has to real-life wizard. With his shocking white hair, he makes prophesies about fantastic technologies that science is close to unlocking. On “The Colbert Report” this summer, for instance, Kaku said that we would soon have invisibility cloaks like in the “Harry Potter” books.

During his most recent Big Think interview, we asked Dr. Kaku what other futuristic technologies we could hope to see within our lifetimes. His answer: shape-shifting. Science is already making huge advances in so-called “programmable matter,” he says. “Atoms can slide over atoms, rearrange themselves, but what happens if atoms are replaced by chips, chips that are so small they’re smaller than the head of a pin and you can change their electric charge? By changing the electric charge they bind and reform in different ways and they’re intelligent because each dot is a computer chip perhaps as powerful as a PC.” This may sound like science fiction, but the computer chip manufacturer Intel is already leading the charge toward developing this kind of programmable matter. In the future it could be used to build entire cities instantaneously. “If I have a clump of clay made of thousands of millions of little dots I push a button then the charges rearrange themselves to form a statue, a car, whatever you want,” Kaku says. “This means that I can push another button and this clay turns into a house or I push another button and a whole city rises out of the desert.”

Kaku also discussed the prospect of a technological singularity, a point at which robots will become smarter than humans—resulting in explosive scientific innovation. Based on Moore’s Law, which says that computer technology doubles every 18 months, some have projected that the singularity will take place as soon as 2029. But Kaku calls these predictions inaccurate because at some point Moore’s Law will hit a wall. There will be a point at which silicon transistors will physically not be able to get smaller or more powerful, he says. Scientists will need to find a replacement for silicon if computers will continue to improve. And even if scientists do overcome this, Kaku isn’t too worried that robots will take over and enslave us. “Right now our machines are as smart as insects,” he says. “Probably by the end of the century, who knows, they’ll be as smart as monkeys. At that point they could become potentially dangerous because monkeys can formulate their own plans; they don’t have to listen to you. They can formulate their own strategies, their own goals and I would say therefore at that point let’s put a chip in their brain to shut them off if they get murderous thoughts.”

But robots aren’t the only thing that could destroy mankind. We are more than capable of doing that job ourselves, he says. And what happens over the next 100 years will determine the fate of mankind. Kaku says we are currently a “type zero” civilization; we rely on fossil fuels and have nationalistic governments. But in about 100 years we will become a “type one” civilization, a planetary civilization with global governments and institutions. “We’ll be able to harness all the energy output of the planet earth,” he says. “We’ll play with the weather, earthquakes, volcanoes. Anything planetary we will play with.” And this formative next century is so dangerous because we still have sectarian, fundamentalist ideas circulating alongside nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons that could wipe life off the planet. Terrorists are a reaction against a type one civilization, which is beginning to emerge with organizations like the European Union and a global language like English. “What they’re reacting to is the fact that we’re headed toward a multicultural tolerant scientific society and that is what they don’t want. They don’t want science. They want a theocracy. They don’t want multiculturalism. They want monoculturalism.”

Classical Chaos Occurs In The Quantum World, Scientists Find

Classical Chaos Occurs In The Quantum World, Scientists Find

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aaaaEven tiny, easily overlooked events can completely change the behavior of a complex system, to the point where there is no apparent order to most natural systems we deal with in everyday life.

The weather is one familiar case, but other well-studied examples can be found in chemical reactions, population dynamics, neural networks and even the stock market. Scientists who study “chaos” — which they define as extreme sensitivity to infinitesimally small tweaks in the initial conditions — have observed this kind of behavior only in the deterministic world described by classical physics.

Until now, no one has produced experimental evidence that chaos occurs in the quantum world, the world of photons, atoms, molecules and their building blocks.

This is a world ruled by uncertainty: An atom is both a particle and a wave, and it’s impossible to determine its position and velocity simultaneously. And that presents a major problem. If the starting point for a quantum particle cannot be precisely known, then there is no way to construct a theory that is sensitive to initial conditions in the way of classical chaos. Yet quantum mechanics is the most complete theory of the physical world, and therefore should be able to account for all naturally occurring phenomena.

jessenThe problem is that people don’t see [classical] chaos in quantum systems,” said Professor Poul Jessen of the University of Arizona. “And we believe quantum mechanics is the fundamental theory, the theory that describes everything, and that we should be able to understand how classical physics follows as a limiting case of quantum physics.”

Experiments Reveal Classical Chaos In Quantum World

Now, however, Jessen and his group in UA’s College of Optical Sciences have performed a series of experiments that show just how classical chaos spills over into the quantum world. The scientists report their research in the Oct. 8 issue of the journal Nature in an article titled, “Quantum signatures of chaos in a kicked top.” Their experiments show clear fingerprints of classical-world chaos in a quantum system designed to mimic a textbook example of chaos known as the “kicked top.”

The quantum version of the top is the “spin” of individual laser-cooled cesium atoms that Jessen’s team manipulate with magnetic fields and laser light, using tools and techniques developed over a decade of painstaking laboratory work.

“Think of an atom as a microscopic top that spins on its axis at a constant rate of speed,” Jessen said. He and his students repeatedly changed the direction of the axis of spin, in a series of cycles that each consisted of a “kick” and a “twist”.

bbbbBecause spinning atoms are tiny magnets, the “kicks” were delivered by a pulsed magnetic field. The “twists” were more challenging, and were achieved by subjecting the atom to an optical-frequency electric field in a precisely tuned laser beam. They imaged the quantum mechanical state of the atomic spin at the end of each kick-and-twist cycle with a tomographic technique that is conceptually similar to the methods used in medical ultrasound and CAT scans. The end results were pictures and stop-motion movies of the evolving quantum state, showing that it behaves like the equivalent classical system in some significant ways.

One of the most dramatic quantum signatures the team saw in their experiments was directly visible in their images: They saw that the quantum spinning top observes the same boundaries between stability and chaos that characterize the motion of the classical spinning top. That is, both quantum and classical systems were dynamically stable in the same areas, and dynamically erratic outside those areas.

A New Signature Of Chaos Called ‘Entanglement’

Jessen’s experiment revealed a new signature of chaos for the first time. It is related to the uniquely quantum mechanical property known as “entanglement.”

Entanglement is best known from a famous thought experiment proposed by Albert Einstein, in which two light particles, or photons, are emitted with polarizations that are fundamentally undefined but nevertheless perfectly correlated. Later, when the photons have traveled far apart in space, their polarizations are both measured at the same instant in time and found to be completely random but always at right angles to each other.

“It’s as though one photon instantly knows the result for the other and adjusts its own polarization accordingly,” Jessen said.

By itself, Einstein’s thought experiment is not directly related to quantum chaos, but the idea of entanglement has proven useful, Jessen added.

“Entanglement is an important phenomenon of the quantum world that has no classical counterpart. It can occur in any quantum system that consists of at least two independent parts,” he said.

Theorists have speculated that the onset of chaos will greatly increase the degree to which different parts of a quantum system become entangled. Jessen took advantage of atomic physics to test this hypothesis in his laboratory experiments. The total spin of a cesium atom is the sum of the spin of its valence electron and the spin of its nucleus, and those spins can become quantum correlated exactly as the photon polarizations in Einstein’s example.

In Jessen’s experiment, the electron and nuclear spins remained unentangled as a result of stable quantum dynamics, but rapidly became entangled if the dynamics were chaotic. Entanglement is a buzzword in the science community because it is the foundation for quantum cryptography and quantum computing.

“Our work is not directly related to quantum computing and communications,” Jessen said. “It just shows that this concept of entanglement has tendrils in all sorts of areas of quantum physics because entanglement is actually common as soon as the system gets complicated enough.”

Star Trek Movie Posters Released!

New Trailer for ‘Star Trek’ Breaks All Existing Records!

2008_star_trek_xi_logo_trailerLOS ANGELES, March 11 /PRNewswire/ — The new trailer for J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” had more than 1.8 million downloads during its first 24 hours on and has gone on to become the most popular HD download ever on the site with more than five million downloads in its first five days. The trailer made its exclusive debut on on March 6th giving fans a sneak peak of this summer’s highly anticipated “Star Trek” for viewing on their Mac or PC, iPhone or iPod with video.

From J.J. Abrams (“Mission: Impossible III,” “Fringe,” “Lost” and “Alias”), producer Damon Lindelof and executive producers Bryan Burk and Jeffrey Chernov and screenwriters and executive producers Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman (“TRANSFORMERS,” “MI: III”) comes a new vision of the greatest adventure of all time, “Star Trek,” featuring a young, new crew venturing boldly where no one has gone before. “Star Trek” opens nationally on May 8, 2009.

Paramount Pictures and Spyglass Entertainment Present a Bad Robot Production “Star Trek” starring John Cho, Ben Cross, Bruce Greenwood, Simon Pegg, Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Winona Ryder, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Anton Yelchin, Eric Bana and Leonard Nimoy. The film is directed by J.J. Abrams (“Mission Impossible III,” “Lost,” “Alias”), written by Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman (“MI: III,” “Transformers”).

Based upon “Star Trek” Created by Gene Roddenberry. The film is produced by J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof. The executive producers are Bryan Burk, Jeffrey Chernov, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. The director of photography is Dan Mindel, ASC. The production designer is Scott Chambliss. The film is edited by Maryann Brandon, A.C.E. and Mary Jo Markey, A.C.E. The costume designer is Michael Kaplan. The visual effects & animation are by Industrial Light and Magic. The music is by Michael Giacchino. This film has not yet been rated.

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