To infinity and beyond

Stephen Harris


Every day at The Engineer we uncover details of technology making people’s lives better or helping to save the planet. The future of the planet seen through the eyes of the world’s inventors and scientists is a bright one.

But it seems that for all the hard work that goes into making a direct improvement to daily life, nothing captures people’s imagination and attention like a good space story.

When my fellow Engineer reporter Siobhan Wagner wrote a relatively straightforward blog earlier this week about an upcoming NASA press conference on ’an exceptional object in our cosmic neighbourhood – which turned out to be a baby black hole – her article rapidly became one of the most popular ever posted on our website.

We joked that the only way it could have received more hits is if she had written about aliens kidnapping Prince William and Kate Middleton before they were able to announce their wedding.

More seriously, it highlights how much excitement and fascination the stuff of science fiction still generates. And luckily for enthusiasts there’s plenty of work being done in this area.

Last month, researchers at the Australian National University in Canberra announced they had developed a supposedly Star Trek-style transporter that could send small particles up to 59 inches from their starting point using laser beams.

This ‘optical vortex pipeline’ creates a tightly wound spiral beam of light and the heated air molecules inside push particles along the vortex created inside using a phenomenon called photophoretic force.

Just this week, scientists from Imperial College London proposed the development of ‘spacetime cloak’ that could hide events from view. There’s already plenty of research being done into invisibility cloak material but this idea involves creating an entire area of space that can’t be seen.

By speeding up half the waves in a beam of light and slowing down the remainder, it theoretically might be possible to create a ‘corridor’ between the two halves where energy, information or matter could be manipulated or transported undetected.

Closing the gap between the light waves would mean the beam reached your eyes as an uninterrupted stream and so you would have no idea of what was going on in front of you.

As intriguing as this all is to many people, there are also those who take a more practical (or cynical) view. This certainly isn’t research that is likely to impact most of us anytime soon.

But our collective obsession with science fiction-inspired technology is having a tangible effect in Britain, where the space industry has grown over 20 per cent since 2006/07 to a turnover of over £7.5bn in 2008/09.

Our enthusiasm and willingness to support an industry with a focus that for many is closer to dreams than reality – even as deep public service cuts are impacting on some people’s basic quality of life – is why the aerospace industry body ADS expects the annual space turnover to grow to £40bn by 2030.

It’s why British scientists at Leicester University and EADS Astrium are involved in the creation of a new kind of space vehicle that could ‘hop’ around the Martian surface using compressed gas collected from the atmosphere.

And it’s why more people want to read a short article with the word ‘UFO’ in it than stories on potential solutions to climate change or ways of treating incurable medical conditions.

Plus, unlike the royal wedding, we won’t have forgotten about it in two years.