Is it possible that ancient cultures 7000 years ago knew how to create flying machines to traverse the sky and beyond using a technology that NASA engineers are still trying to harness today?
The first artificial satellite launched famously into orbit was the Russian satellite Sputnik, in 1957. Prior to this, rockets had been used to launch missiles for warfare. The first rocket able to fly high enough to get into space was the German A4/V-2 rocket family launched in 1942. Considering early powered flight and early models of the aeroplane these advances still only date back to the beginning of the 20th century. However there are many books and websites which forcefully and passionately assert that technologically advanced aircraft and spacecraft were in common use over the Indian subcontinent thousands of years ago. These same sources claim that advanced space propulsion techniques being researched by NASA are in fact directly inspired by ancient flying machines.
Flying Vimanas, is this inspiration for current NASA technology? Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Flying Vimanas, is this inspiration for current NASA technology? Seriously? (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Could these amazing stories be true? The answer will be obvious to anyone with any knowledge of science or history but let us try to look at the claims as fairly as we can.
In Hindu mythology, demon King Ravana of Lanka (ancient Sri Lanka) brought to the country something called the Pushpaka Vimãna. Vimãna literally means to traverse or to measure. Other uses of the word refer to a temple or a flying machine. The Pushpaka Vimãna is thought to be King Ravana’s flying palace which was shaped like a giant peacock. Every country has their myths and legends. In Ireland, Finn McCool is a familiar character in ancient stories. So where does fiction meet fact? How is this ancient flying machine relevant to today?
Ten headed King ravana, inventor of ancient flying machines? Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Ten-headed King Ravana, inventor of ancient flying machines? (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Some say that “ancient scriptures” tell of these ancient aeronauts, but there is no record of these documents prior to the last century. A publication called the Vaimãnika Shastra or the Science of Aeronautics, is a 20th century text written by one Subbaraya Shastry sometime between 1918-1923. However the information provided in this book is believed to have been obtained by psychic channelling with the ancient Saint Bharadvaja. Subbaraya Shastry was believed to have contracted leprosy. He left his home and spent nine years living in the forest. During this time he is supposed to have spoken with the ancient saint (sage Bharadvaja) and was enlightened with this new found knowledge of flying machines. He later returned home (as he also had been cured of leprosy), but Shastry could not read or write so he dictated his new knowledge over the period of 5 years,( 25 years after the psychic experience itself). The dictated text was apparently discovered in 1952 by G.R Josyer who later translated it into English in 1973. This publication contains eight chapters claiming that ancient vimãnas from the King Ravana legend were actually feasible flying machines, perhaps even similar in ability to rockets. The text indicates that propulsion was provided using rotating gyroscopes of electricity and mercury.
The existing text is said to only be a small section of larger (lost) works. It aims to provide information to pilots on the secrets of hearing and destroying enemy planes at the same time remaining motionless, unbreakable and invisible. According to American author David Hatcher Childress (born 1957), another ancient Indian piece of work that he decoded, Samarangana Sutradhara reveals that these ancient flying vimãnas, referred to in ‘Vaimãnika Shastra’ were powered by the metal mercury. He states in the text is says “By means of the power latent in the mercury which sets the driving whirlwind in motion, a man sitting inside may travel a great distance in the sky…” This powerplant is referred to as a “mercury vortex engine”.
The ‘Vaimãnika Shastra’ although dubbed an ancient text in reality was written less than 100 years ago. It was supposedly dictated by psychically channelling an ancient saint; however it was written almost 25 years after the author actually had the experience. The author was believed to be a leper, spending years in isolation. Coincidentally in history, a treatment solution for leprosy was mercury. Perhaps this was inspiration for the fuel of the vimãnas? American author David Hatcher Childress has published over 200 books mostly on unusual topics such as ancient astronauts and the lost city of Atlantis, however Childress’ works have been criticised by historical archaeologists for being factually incorrect. He is also the owner of a publishing house and no doubt mysterious topics gather more interest in sales.
A study by the aeronautical and mechanical engineering department at the Indian Institute of Science in 1974, referred to the crafts as “poor concoctions” and the crafts themselves were unfeasible for flight. The text also does not explain how the vimãnas actually get up into the air and the information appears as though the author has knowledge of some modern machinery (that is to say modern for the early 1900s), yet there appears to be little to no understanding of aeronautics. The illustrations provided were based upon the text, and are more comparable to steampunk flying machines. So despite the fact that these creations are masquerading as ancient designs, in truth this is far from the reality.
NASA (and other research organisations) have been experimenting with the ion propulsion concept since the 1950s. In an ion propulsion engine, the gas is held in a chamber surrounded by magnets. An electrical charge causes the atoms to lose electrons, therefore turning them into ions. As the ionised gas jet is expelled out of the craft, it is then propelled in the opposite direction.In the 1970s when this technology was being trialled in earthbound laboratories, mercury or caesium was used as propellant. Mercury is liquid at room temperature and caesium is a solid. Therefore, they were both relatively easy to store. In order to be used as a propellant both elements needed to be heated to become a gas.
The problems arose when some of the gases condensed and leaked onto the ground. Caesium is radioactive, can be corrosive and is very dangerous. Mercury is also a neurotoxin and is thought to be one of the more dangerous metals and exposure to it can cause various health problems. After determining that both these elements were much too toxic and dangerous to use, scientists turned to using Xenon, an odourless, colourless gas which is generally unreactive. This futuristic idea was used on the Dawn spacecraft. This craft was launched in 2007 and travelled towards the asteroid belt using ion propulsion engines visiting Vesta. It is intended to reach the dwarf planet Ceres located in the asteroid belt in February of 2015. These experiments by NASA in the 1970s may have been the inspiration for the legend that NASA is trying to build space vehicles pushed along by the mercury vortex engines of legend.
The Dawn spacecraft with the dwarf planet Ceres. Ion propulsion takes a little longer than other methods to manoeuvre into orbit: Credit: NASA/JPL.
A stylised artist’s impression of the Dawn spacecraft with Ceres (created before the mission reached the dwarf planet). Ion propulsion takes a little longer than other methods to manoeuvre into orbit. (image credit: NASA/JPL)
So despite claims that ancient scholars were aware of flying machines that used mercury as a propellant, this not something which NASA are harnessing today. Although ion engines using mercury were tested in the past they are not in use now. Equally the ancient text explaining the science of aeronautics is really not that ancient at all as it was written less than 100 years ago and doesn’t actually explain the science of how to actually get into the air. In terms of myths and legends the story of the flying peacock seems like a great one but in reality there are no mercury vortex engines and especially not ones from the era of King Ravana.
(Article by Martina Redpath, Senior Education Support Officer)
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The movie The Objective (2008) which deals with US soldiers encountering vimanas in Afghanistan is fiction and not a documentary. It in no way constitutes evidence of ancient technology.