Archives for category: Physics


Scientists have located what they believe to be the first direct observation of a planet forming in its stellar womb of gas and dust. Using ESO’s Very Large Telescope, Sascha Quanz and an international team of scientists has been studying the young star HD 100546 and its surrounding gas. They were surprised when they spotted a protoplanet, about 10 times further out than the Earth is from the sun, still being formed. The discovery is exciting for several reasons. Firstly, the youthful planet and its star are relatively nearby to earth at 335 light-years away. But even more importantly, “if [the] discovery is indeed a forming planet, then for the first time scientists will be able to study the planet formation process and the interaction of a forming planet and its natal environment empirically at a very early stage.” Current understanding of protoplanet formation relies heavily on mathematically based theories and computer models. Scientists note that the results of the study require follow-up observations to confirm the existence of a protoplanet.

The greatest barrier to human exploration of space is undoubtedly the vast distances and time lengths required to travel from one stellar body to the next. This post will outline some potential modes of interstellar propulsion:

Magnetoplasmadynamic (MPD) Thrusters

As described by NASA, MPD thrusters are the most powerful form of electromagnetic propulsion. They use charged particles from ionized gas as fuel (xenon, lithium, neon), feed them into an acceleration chamber and out a nozzle to produce thrusts of up to 200,000 MPH. Unfortunately, these thrusters require hundreds of kilowatts to generate acceleration, requiring power generation on the scale of nuclear power plants.

Bussard Interstellar Ramjet

The Bussard Interstellar Ramjet propulsion system draws its fuel from space itself. Developed in 1960 by Dr. Robert Bussard, this “ramjet” uses an electromagnetic field to collect interstellar hydrogen, which is compressed in the craft’s cylinder shaped body and expelled as propellant for a fusion rocket. The speed of the craft is mostly dependent on the density of hydrogen in front of the vacuum-like Bussard Collector. Some estimate that the Bussard Ramjet could move at 77% the speed of light. (The EnterpriseD has two “Bussard Collectors” that were used as emergency fuel sources for the warp drive).

Solar Sail and Beamed Solar Sail

This technology is true to its name and very real. Solar sails use solar photons to push a hair-thin reflective carbon-fiber fabric in a fashion similar to using wind against sails to move across water. This technology has been successfully created by NASA and put to use by the Japanese. IKAROS, a Japanese solar sail, traveled to Venus in 2010, proving the technology for intrasolar missions. Solar sails to not need fuel, but are propelled via solar pressure or self-generated lasers. Because of its sail mechanics, this craft takes years to build up speed, but can reach velocities of 100,000 MPH and more. – Latest solar sail project from my hometown!


On July 5, 2012, the world’s largest laser fired a record shattering shot that generated more power than the entire United States does at any given moment. The laser, located in Livermore, California, is housed in a building the size of three football fields dubbed the National Ignition Facility (photo above). The NIF laser is an extraordinary machine of precision. Each experimental shot requires the coordination of 60,000 control points including motorized mirrors and lenses, sensors, amplifiers, cameras and more, ultimately targeting a point about the size of a pencil eraser. 192 beams of optically amplified, electromagnetic radiation-emitting light, that all fire within a few trillionths of a second, combine to produce 500 terawatts of peak power and 1.85 megajoules of ultraviolet laser light.


Funded by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the NIF’s primary mission is to provide a better understanding of the physics behind nuclear reactions. However, this remarkable technology is also helping to conquer the physical barriers of scientific observation. The laser can generate temperatures of more than 100 million degrees and pressures more than 100 billion times Earth’s atmosphere. These conditions can potentially simulate the extreme states of matter found in the cores of planets, stars and other celestial objects, giving astronomers and physicist an unprecedented view of stellar mechanics. One hopeful goal for the NIF laser is to develop an understanding of fusion ignition, the point at which nuclear fusion (the process by which stars burn) becomes self-sustaining. Achieving laboratory fusion ignition would theoretically allow scientists to provide abundant and sustainable clean energy through nuclear fusion by converting mass into incredible amounts of energy. Experts still speculate on the timeline of such achievements, noting the technical challenges of putting star stuff in a container.

For more images and videos of the NIF laser, including a fascinating Ted Talk by Dr. Ed Moses, click the second photo above!