Lorentz-Actuated Orbit Spacecraft May Ride Planetary Magnetic Fields

Dr. Mason Peck of Cornell University has received a grant from NASA to further study the possibility of Lorentz-Actuated Orbit spacecraft. Such spacecraft would achieve propulsion without propellants by using planetary magnetic fields.

According to Maxwell's equations, a charged particle moving relative to a magnetic field accelerates in a direction perpendicular to its velocity and the magnetic field. This Lorentz force is known to act on man-made satellites that carry an electrical charge and orbit within a planetary magnetic field.

The key to a usable LAO-orbit spacecraft is providing some sort of self-capacitative structure that can store a suitable electrical charge. The most promising scenario envisions a cylindrical mesh of fibers attached to a spacecraft. The mesh could be charged up using a coating of a radioactive isotope that itself emits charged particles. The Earth's magnetic field would push on the stocking, propelling the spacecraft to a higher orbit and even into interplanetary space. Dr. Peck has proposed a 100 kilogram spacecraft carrying a mesh cylinder with a radius of 41 meters and a length of 4 kilometers.


(Charged 'space stocking' moved by magnetic field)

Other scenarios include the creation of a multi-filament capacitor centering on the spacecraft. Uniformly distributed filaments would bend from Coulomb repulsion (keeps them separated) and Lorentz force (along the qvxB direction). Actual filaments would be virtually invisible and much longer. The highest performing conductive filament is the carbon nanotube.


(Alternative Self-Capacitative Architecture)

Apparently, a new science fiction book is available just this week that takes this idea and runs with it. GRADISIL, by Adam Roberts, makes considerable use of the idea of LAO-orbit spacecraft. According to a review by Starburst "the magnetic boost technologies he uses to put planes into orbit has the smack of an SF trope that’ll become a universal cliché in a few years." I don't think this force is strong enough to put planes into orbit, but it could move spacecraft between space stations in low earth orbit, which seems to be what happens in the novel.

I was unable to find a copy in bookstores, so I don't have a quote. I've pinged the author, but no joy thus far.

If you are interested in recherche spacecraft propulsion technologies, search no further:

Thanks to reader Lou Anders for providing the story idea. For more information, see this interesting paper by Dr. Peck: Prospects and Challenges for Lorentz-Augmented Orbits. Also, see Spacecraft may surf the solar system on magnetic fields.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 3/15/2007)

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