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How could a helicopter enter and function in space? Could it enter the atmosphere and function, and if not what could be a suitable solution?

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    $\begingroup$ are you assuming only rotors/propellors or can it be a modified helicopter? $\endgroup$ – depperm Jul 27 '15 at 14:28
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    $\begingroup$ I'm wondering if the downvotes are because of the length of the question, or the fact that the answer is most assuredly 'no'. $\endgroup$ – DaaaahWhoosh Jul 27 '15 at 15:20
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    $\begingroup$ This question does intrigue me, in that it prompts me to wonder whether a Texas-sized propeller made of unobtainium spinning at some unreachable fraction of the speed of light might actually be able to push against the interplanetary medium hard enough to provide detectable thrust. $\endgroup$ – Doug Warren Jul 27 '15 at 15:54
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    $\begingroup$ Vacuum + Rotors. 'Nuff said. $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Jul 27 '15 at 16:04
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    $\begingroup$ What work have you done on the idea? As one can tell from the answers, what we believe you want is an outright physical absurdity. Can you tell us more about why you believe "space helicopter" is a useful descriptor for what you want? Perhaps we can find a loophole which will give you what you actually want, while sidestepping the physics issues regarding helicopters in vacuum. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Jul 27 '15 at 16:38
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A normal, unmodified helicopter cannot exit earth's atmosphere. First the velocity needed to escape earth's atmosphere is about 11.2 km/s (25,300mph). The current world record for speed in a helicopter is 293 mph. A propeller on a helicopter can't exceed the speed of sound, 768 mph, which is far below the speed needed to exit earth's atmosphere. Even if a helicopter managed to get into space, propellers are used to push air down to fly and space is a vacuum.

The only possibility might be for a rocket engine used to enter/navigate in space and propellers used when within earth's atmosphere. There would probably be weight/size constraints of some sort, and stationary propellers might not survive reentry (also not very aerodynamic).

--EDIT--

Another thing to note is the maximum ceiling for a rotary aircraft, which is below 25,000ft. Depending on what height you consider the edge of space, the height is much greater than that of a helicopter.

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    $\begingroup$ You don't actually need to reach the escape velocity to escape Earth's gravity, you just need to keep on applying upward forces. But other than that, you're right, it's not going to happen. $\endgroup$ – DaaaahWhoosh Jul 27 '15 at 15:12
  • $\begingroup$ @DaaaahWhoosh - I don't think that's quite true. All the time you are applying the force you are still fighting gravity - you haven't escaped it. If you stop, you fall. However, on reaching escape velocity you can stop applying force. The only way to do what you describe would be to keep applying upward forces until you were so far from the Earth that the escape velocity was very low. $\endgroup$ – chasly from UK Jul 27 '15 at 15:53
  • $\begingroup$ @chaslyfromUK The OP asked to enter space (which is internationally defined to be an altitude of 100km). Nothing was specified about actually entering orbit, which would call for orbital velocity (not necessarily escape velocity, if my memory for definitions holds true) $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Jul 27 '15 at 16:36
  • $\begingroup$ @chaslyfromUK True, I'm just saying if you have a helicopter, there's no point in firing it from a cannon. I'd think it would be easier to gather speed for as long as you can and then stop applying force when you run out of air. I guess you have to reach an escape velocity, just not the one on Earth's surface. $\endgroup$ – DaaaahWhoosh Jul 27 '15 at 17:04
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    $\begingroup$ @all Heres a useful reference to Escape Velocity which will help explain what Daaaah is saying space.stackexchange.com/questions/4688/… That being said, Helicopters need a medium for their rotor blades to hit to generate lift, so it gets complicated but they definitely would have NO propulsion in space, a near vacuum $\endgroup$ – Ryan Mar 16 '16 at 17:52
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Ben, did you perhaps read/hear about the Rotary Rocket? While this is a space launch system with a rotor, it uses the rotor only for low altitude. A pure helicopter getting into space is totally impossible, as other posters have pointed out.

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  • $\begingroup$ Drat! This was the answer I was going to post. There's no reason to use a Rotary Rocket if you're using the vehicle outside of an atmosphere. $\endgroup$ – Jim2B Jul 28 '15 at 1:29
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While not exactly the answer you are looking for, NASA did study the use of rotors for re entry into the Earth's atmosphere back in the Apollo program.

The idea in this case was to stow a set of rotor blades in the nose of the Apollo CM capsule and deploy them after passing through the plasma sheath of initial reentry. The rotors were unpowered and spun due to the aerodynamic forces of the airstream passing over them, essentially an autogyro. Once the rotor blades were deployed, the astronauts could control the descent and land the capsule virtually anywhere on land or at sea.

You can extend this idea by adding a propulsion system such as rotor tip ramjets so the astronauts have more control and the ability to climb, maintain level flight or even hover for a short period of time. The Hiller YH-32 Hornet used such a system. A more recent paper proposed using helicopter like blades deployed at supersonic or hypersonic speeds as a means of slowing down from reentry and making a powered landing, although this seems somewhat unlikely, with modern materials technology this may be possible: http://papers.sae.org/670391/

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You could perhaps use it to fly through the interstellar medium.

In astronomy, the interstellar medium (ISM) is the matter that exists in the space between the star systems in a galaxy. This matter includes gas in ionic, atomic, and molecular form, as well as dust and cosmic rays.

Of course you would have to get there first and a helicopter wouldn't be much use for that.

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  • $\begingroup$ Maybe my fisherman accidentally reeled in his catch too hard. $\endgroup$ – PyRulez Jul 27 '15 at 18:40
  • $\begingroup$ No. The interstellar medium is far thinner than even the best vacuum we can produce here on Earth. It would not do a helicopter-type vehicle any good whatsoever. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Mar 16 '16 at 20:09
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Obviously rotors will not work in a vacuum. If your intention is to have a vehicle that can hover in the atmosphere as well as exit the atmosphere and escape orbit and dock with a mothership...

Perhaps it could use compressed air. Before it leaves the atmosphere it needs to store compressed air in canisters. While its in the atmosphere, it constantly takes in more air as it expends it. It could hover around like a helicopter by using a jet of compressed air, like a Harrier jump jet does.

Supposing this vehicle ran on fuel, it would not be very practical. It takes ALOT of fuel to escape orbit. Are you going to carry all of that fuel around with you while are you hover around the planet? It's air compressor would need to be powered by a portable fusion reactor or something. By the time you made this vehicle work, you could make just about any vehicle work. What exactly is the purpose of this vehicle?

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Potentially, this "helicopter" could be made by utilizing plasma and electromagnets to create a plasma vortex to propel the craft. This could be used in combination with rotors, though that wouldn't be practical. In addition, for use of only rotors that wouldn't certainly be really practical in principle, as already stated above (it would be able to provide enough force for escape velocity).

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So, obviously you're going to have issues with this in a hard sci-fi approach. You'll probably only get anywhere with a bit of hand-waving.

In that vein, you could imagine a rotor that is able to interact with "dark matter" that is ever present around the universe. Or neutrinos (implausible from physics standpoint due the orders of magnitude difference in forces) or photons (also implausible due to orders of magnitude difference in forces)

Thinking of this from the perspective of a vehicle that has the same pros/cons of a helicopter. A helicopter has to beat the air into submission 24/7 in order to stay in the air else it crashes and explodes. You could create a craft that is able to manipulate gravity/create unstable wormholes/interact with the fabric of space time so it can forcefully crawl towards its destination but if the reactor overheats everyone inside is gonna have a bad time.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is a rather old question, to which there were already some fairly satisfying and rich answers. As a rule, please try only to re-open questions if you have something completely novel to add to them. $\endgroup$ – CAgrippa Mar 16 '16 at 18:16
  • $\begingroup$ Maybe I don't understand how this works ^_^ $\endgroup$ – Ryan Mar 16 '16 at 19:20
  • $\begingroup$ @Ryan No worries, we are all new at some point. There is nothing wrong with answering an old question, but because answering a question bumps the question to the top of the front page, it's usually best to try to make any new answers substantially different from (and hopefully better than) the already existing ones. Also, make sure you are actually answering the question as asked. For some more about how we do things here, I recommend the site tour, followed by the help center if you want more details. Welcome, and enjoy your stay! $\endgroup$ – a CVn Mar 16 '16 at 20:11

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