AN EXTRAORDINARY "hyperspace" engine that could make interstellar space travel a reality by flying into other dimensions is being investigated by the United States government.
The hypothetical device, which has been outlined in principle but is based on a controversial theory about the fabric of the universe, could potentially allow a spacecraft to travel to Mars in three hours and journey to a star 11 light years away in just 80 days, according to a report in today's New Scientist magazine.
The theoretical engine works by creating an intense magnetic field that, according to ideas first developed by the late scientist Burkhard Heim in the 1950s, would produce a gravitational field and result in thrust for a spacecraft.
Also, if a large enough magnetic field was created, the craft would slip into a different dimension, where the speed of light is faster, allowing incredible speeds to be reached. Switching off the magnetic field would result in the engine reappearing in our current dimension.
The US air force has expressed an interest in the idea and scientists working for the American Department of Energy - which has a device known as the Z Machine that could generate the kind of magnetic fields required to drive the engine - say they may carry out a test if the theory withstands further scrutiny.
Professor Jochem Hauser, one of the scientists who put forward the idea, told The Scotsman that if everything went well a working engine could be tested in about five years.
However, Prof Hauser, a physicist at the Applied Sciences University in Salzgitter, Germany, and a former chief of aerodynamics at the European Space Agency, cautioned it was based on a highly controversial theory that would require a significant change in the current understanding of the laws of physics.
"It would be amazing. I have been working on propulsion systems for quite a while and it would be the most amazing thing. The benefits would be almost unlimited," he said.
"But this thing is not around the corner; we first have to prove the basic science is correct and there are quite a few physicists who have a different opinion.
"It's our job to prove we are right and we are working on that."
He said the engine would enable spaceships to travel to different solar systems. "If the theory is correct then this is not science fiction, it is science fact," Prof Hauser said.
"NASA have contacted me and next week I'm going to see someone from the [US] air force to talk about it further, but it is at a very early stage. I think the best-case scenario would be within the next five years [to build a test device] if the technology works."
The US authorities' attention was attracted after Prof Hauser and an Austrian colleague, Walter Droscher, wrote a paper called "Guidelines for a space propulsion device based on Heim's quantum theory".