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Air Force Funding Research on Starship Engines

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
July 12, 2009
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Near-lightspeed nano spacecraft might be close: Researchers creating the tiny engines that could drive mini-starships

The solution to interstellar space exploration may lie in the use of micro or nano-sized spacecraft that can be accelerated to incredible speeds. Protons in a particle accelerator can reach near-lightspeed because they are so small and light. Similarly, very small unmanned space probes could be light enough to reach the speeds necessary for interstellar space exploration.

Researchers at the University of Michigan are creating the nano-sized engines that could someday drive a new wave of these mini-starships.

Funded by the Air Force, Brian Gilchrist and his colleagues are developing a new type of thruster that uses nanoparticles as propellant. Much of the engine is etched directly onto a wafer-thin piece of silicon via micro-electromechanical systems technologies, known as MEMS, that are more commonly used in the semiconductor industry. Measuring no thicker than a half-inch (1 centimeter, including the fuel) and with tens of thousands of accelerators able to fit on an area smaller than a postage stamp, these “stick-on” thrusters could power tiny spacecraft over vast distances.

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