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Engineers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory are developing a prototype of a theoretical space rocket engine powered by the sun that could perhaps someday take spacecraft into interstellar travel, Wired reported.

Their plan is to make an engine that will use heated and pressurized hydrogen to achieve efficiencies that are three times greater than the conventional rocket engines used today. 

They propose to use the heat from the sun rather than combustion to slingshot the experimental spacecraft out into interstellar space. 

Proving a Sci-Fi Concept of a Space Rocket

The path to interstellar travel may be coming true with the prototype that the engineers at Johns Hopkins University are making.

Jason Benkoski mounted a seemingly low-budget sci-fi film with one wall container lined up with thousands of LEDs, a metal trellis that runs down the center, and a thick black curtain that partially covers the apparatus. This is the solar simulator that he had been working on which can shine with the same intensity of 20 suns.

Wired reported that Benkoski then started pumping the liquid helium through a small embedded tube that lies across the slab once the solar simulator was blistering hot. since the LEDs generated heat, it absorbed the liquid helium as it passes through a channel and releases it through a nozzle when it expanded too much.

According to Benkoski and his team, what he just showed is the solar thermal propulsion that was once thought of as theoretical and often considered science fiction. In other words, a rocket engine that is powered by the Sun's heat which they believe could take future spacecraft into interstellar exploration.

Benkoski, a materials scientist at the Applied Physics Laboratory and the lead scientist of the team working on the solar thermal propulsion system, said that the idea of using the sun's heat to power a rocket engine would be easily dismissed by other people.

Some would say that "On the back of an envelope, it looks great, but if you actually build it, you're never going to get those theoretical numbers."

On the contrary, what Benkoski and his team showed was an example that thermal propulsion is possible and not just a crazy idea because it does work.

Read Also: UK's First Commercial Rocket Launch Is Set to Lift off From the Shetland Islands in 2021

Search For Earth-Like Planets

According to Popular Mechanics, NASA partnered with APL in 2019 to kick off its Interstellar Probe study that aims to determine missions that could be launched in the next ten years outside of the Solar System. 

Scientists want to know where the solar system ends and where the interstellar begins through these Interstellar probe missions. They believe in one metric system of knowing where the Solar System ends where the magnetic fields of the sun end or what they call the heliopause.

As of now, only two space rockets have reached outside the Solar System, which is the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, and that is just a side trip after they were done with their primary mission of exploring Jupiter and Saturn. 

However, none of the two spacecraft is capable of studying the boundaries beyond the Solar System and the rest of the universe. Not to mention, the two Voyager spacecraft are too slow at speeds of only 30,000 miles per hour which took them almost half a century to escape the scorching Sun's influence.


Read More: Rocket Lab Successfully Launches Electron, Brings Its Rocket Back to Earth Under a Parachute

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