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"By the time I can take people out to where Hubble is looking, they won't be human anymore, by a long way."
- Larry Niven

Sweep Field  
  Pulls in interplanetary matter for space ship propulsion.  

This is taken from the novel as published in Astounding, and is a very early description of this concept.

The New Frontiers had no fuel tanks; she “lived off the country,” gathering up any mass that lay in her path with a sweep field — meteors, cosmic dust, stray atoms. If the “country” was “poor” in stray matter, any mass from within the ship was fuel for her hungry converter — furniture, clothing, food, even dead bodies. The converter accepted them all — mass was energy; energy, mass. Each tortured gram, in dying, gave up nine hundred million trillion ergs.
Technovelgy from Methuselah's Children, by Robert Heinlein.
Published by Astounding Science-Fiction in 1941
Additional resources -

The end result was a ship that looked somewhat more streamlined - not that it matters in space.


(The New Frontiers from 'Methuselah's Children' by Robert Heinlein)

The New Frontiers was approximately cylindrical in shape. When not under acceleration, she spun about her longitudinal axis, giving a feeling of pseudo-weight to passengers near the outer skin of the ship. The outer shell or “lower” level of compartments had been intended, therefore, as living compartments; the inner, or “upper,” levels for storage, et cetera. The main drive and the main converter were located along the axis at the highest level of no-weight. Since the design is roughly that of the larger free-flight ships in use today, it seems unnecessary to go into more detail, as long as one bears in mind the enormous size of the ship. She had been designed to provide ample living space for a colony of twenty thousand, which would allow the original complement to double their numbers en route to Proxima Centauri. The hundred thousand and more members of the Families found themselves overcrowded five-fold.

The "sweep field" idea also goes by the name Bussard ramjet, used in Larry Niven's A World Out of Time (1976). The Bussard ramjet is a theoretical method of spacecraft propulsion proposed in 1960 by the physicist Robert W. Bussard.

However, as we can see here, Robert Heinlein proposed exactly the same idea in 1941.

However (2) see also automatic refueling field from Biddiver (1941) by Theodore Sturgeon.

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Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from Methuselah's Children
  More Ideas and Technology by Robert Heinlein
  Tech news articles related to Methuselah's Children
  Tech news articles related to works by Robert Heinlein

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