Remember the name, because you might see it again: Aisha Mustafa, a 19-year-old Egyptian physics student, patented a new type of propulsion system for spacecraft that uses cutting edge quantum physics instead of thrusters.
First, a little background: One of the strange quantum facts at work in Mustafa's engine idea is that there's no such thing as a vacuum, devoid of particles, waves, and energy. Instead the universe's supposedly empty spaces are filled with a roiling sea of particles and anti-particles that pop into existence, then annihilate each other in such a short space of time that you can't readily detect them.
Mustafa invented a way of tapping this quantum effect via what's known as the dynamic Casimir effect. This uses a "moving mirror" cavity, where two very reflective very flat plates are held close together, and then moved slightly to interact with the quantum particle sea. It's horribly technical, but the end result is that Mustafa's use of shaped silicon plates similar to those used in solar power cells results in a net force being delivered. A force, of course, means a push or a pull and in space this equates to a drive or engine.
In terms of space propulsion, this is amazing. Most forms of spacecraft rely on the rocket principle to work: Some fuel is made energetic and then thrust out of an engine, pushing the rocket forward. It's tricky stuff to get right, particularly on Earth, which is why we shouldn't be surprised SpaceX's recent launch stopped at the critical moment due to a problem with one of its chemical rocket engines. For in-space maneuvering, many different types of rocket are used, but even exotic ones like ion drives (shown in a NASA image above) need fuel. The only space drive that doesn't involve hauling fuel and complex systems into orbit is a solar sail. And Mustafa's invention can, rudimentarily, be compared to a solar sail...because it doesn't need "fuel" as such, and exerts just the tiniest push compared to the thundery flames of SpaceX's rockets. It's potential is enormous—because of its mechanical simplicity and reliability it could make satellite propulsion lighter, cheaper, and thus indirectly lower the cost of space missions of all sorts.
And if you want proof that the tiniest of pushes can propel a spacecraft, check this out: Two Pioneer space probes, launched in the 1970s, are the farthest manmade objects from Earth...but they're not as far away as they should be. Over the course of a year they deviate by hundreds of kilometers from where all our science says they must be in orbit, and it's been found that it's down to the tiniest of pushes coming from radiators on-board that radiate heat waves out slghtly more in one direction than another.
Aisha's invention is so promising that her university's staff aided with a patent application. She intends to study the design further in the hope of testing it out for real in space, but as the OnIslam.net site points out she notes that there's no funding for a department of space science and this prevents important research being carried out in strife-ridden Egypt.
[Image: Flickr user gordontarpley]