Field propulsion is the concept of spacecraft propulsion where no propellant is necessary but instead momentum of the spacecraft is changed by an interaction of the spacecraft with external force fields, such as gravitational and magnetic fields from stars and planets. Some methods such as the gravity assist have been in use for interplanetary spacecraft missions for decades. Others are speculative and have not yet been demonstrated to be of practical use or theoretically valid.
Although not presently in wide use for space, there exists proven terrestrial examples of "Field Propulsion", in which electromagentic fields act upon a conducting medium such as seawater or plasma for propulsion, is known as magnetohydrodynamics or MHD. MHD is similar in operation to electric motors, however rather than using moving parts or metal conductors, fluid or plasma conductors are employed. The EMS-1 and more recently the Yamato 1 are examples of such electromagnetic Field propulsion systems, first proposed in patent US 5333444 . There is definitely potential to apply MHD to the space environment and experiments such as the NASA's Electrodynamic Tether, Lorentz Actuated Orbits, the Wingless Electromagnetic Air Vehicle, and Magnetoplasmadynamic thruster (which does use propellant) lay a solid foundation for using "fields" to propel spacecraft without propellant and standard concepts of chemical thrust. Since electrodynamics is well proven science, electromagnetic fields themselves carry momentum (see the Nichols radiometer), and electromagnetic field propulsion is not limited to the ejection velocity of particle propellants these new concepts offer tremendous potential as a future space propulsion system. They represent a radical departure from current ideas of aeronautics and rocket propulsion, and as such are controversial, but field propulsion may offer the radical breakthroughs in performance capabilities required for deep space exploration. The main limiting factors appear to the generation of the significant amounts of electrical power required and a method of strongly coupling the fields to large volumes
Other practical methods which could be loosely considered as field propulsion include: The gravity assist trajectory, which uses planetary gravity fields and orbital momentum; Solar sails and magnetic sails use the solar wind or radiation pressure for spacecraft thrust; Aerobraking uses the atmosphere of a planet to change relative velocity of a spacecraft. The last two actually involve the exchange of momentum with physical particles and are not usually expressed as an interaction with fields, but they are sometimes included as examples of field propulsion since no spacecraft propellant is required.
Other concepts that have been proposed are speculative, using "frontier physics" and concepts from modern physics. So far none of these methods have been unambiguously demonstrated, much less, proven practical.
The Woodward effect is based on a controversial concept of inertia and certain solutions to the equations for General Relativity. Experiments attempting to conclusively demonstrate this effect have been conducted since the 1990s.
Although speculative, ideas such as coupling to the momentum flux of the zero-point electromagnetic wave field hypothesized in stochastic electrodynamics have a plausible basis for further investigation within the existing theoretical physics paradigm. Examples of proposals for field propulsion that rely on physics outside the present paradigms are various schemes for faster-than-light, warp drive and antigravity, and often amount to little more than catchy descriptive phrases, with no known physical basis. Any such schemes worthy of discussion must rely on energy and momentum transfer to the spacecraft from some external source such as a local force field, which in turn must obtain it from still other momentum and/or energy sources in the cosmos, in order to satisfy conservation of both energy and momentum.
- Advanced Space Propulsion Investigation Committee
- Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Program
- United States gravity control propulsion research
- Reactionless drive
- Meng, J.C.S. (1994). U.S. Patent No. 5333444. Washington DC: US Patent and Trademark Office.
- Examples of current field propulsion systems for ships.
- Example of a possible field propulsion system based on existing physics and links to papers on the topic.
- Stoyan Sarg, Field Propulsion by Control of Gravity - Theory and Experiments, 2009, ISBN 978-1-4486-9308-5.
- Y. Minami., An Introduction to Concepts of Field Propulsion, JBIS,56,350-359(2003).
- Minami Y., Musha T., Field Propulsion Systems for Space Travel, the Seventh IAA Symposium on Realistic Near-Term Advanced Scientific Space Missions, 11–13 July 2011, Aosta, Italy
- Ed.T.Musha, Y.Minami, Field Propulsion System for Space Travel: Physics of Non-Conventional Propulsion Methods for Interstellar Travel, 2011, ISBN 978-1-60805-270-7.