Anyone who grew up a fan of Star Trek or Star Wars should be excited today. That’s because mankind’s voyage to the planets and possibly the stars is finally becoming within our reach. A peer reviewed scientific paper written by scientists at NASA’s Eagleworks laboratory recently leaked online and it says that the EmDrive works.
The paper titled “Measurement of Impulsive Thrust From a Closed Radio Frequency Cavity in Vacuum” was co-authored by Harold White who made headlines last year when news outlets erroneously reported that NASA was working on a faster than light “Warp Drive.” According to Einstein’s theory of relativity nothing can travel faster than light.
However the EmDrive experiments are pointing towards another science fiction sounding propulsion system that is still very impressive. The recent experiments are of new type of engine invented by British scientist Roger Sawyer back in 1999 dubbed The EmDrive.
The EmDrive is said to convert electric power to thrust without the need for any rocket fuel or propellant, by bouncing microwaves in a closed container. That sounds really cool, but unfortunately according to the smarty pants scientists it would violate our understanding of the Newtonian laws of physics. Specifically Newton’s Third Law: the law of conservation of momentum that says “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
OK, now go build one in your garage.
Newton’s Third Law is a pretty standard concept of physics that has been written in stone for hundreds of years. For the EmDrive to work it is the equivalent of pushing on the backseat of your car with your hands and making it move. This should not work. Yet it appears that the EmDrive works without a fuel or propellant source. It simply bounces microwave photos around the inside of a cone shaped metal cavity. This causes the drive to generate THRUST in the opposite direction.
While the FTL status of the drive was never accurate, if the EmDrive were to work it would still be way faster than any type of rockets we have today. Some say we would be able to get to the moon in four hours (it took the Apollo astronauts three days) or reach the planet mars in a mere 70 days- a journey that now takes space probes six months. While it we wouldn’t have warp speed, it would make the possibility of humans traveling to other planets more realistic than with our current rocket technology.
While space geeks and the internet rejoiced that our ticket to the stars was finally here, scientists including those at NASA were rightfully skeptical. In July of 2015 a German scientist claimed that his team had conducted a study that said that the EmDrive showed signs of thrust.
Martin Tajmar of Space Systems at Dresden University of Technology in Germany presented his work to the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics’ Propulsion and Energy Forum in Orlando. He said that;
“Our measurements reveal thrusts as expected from previous claims after carefully studying thermal and electromagnetic interferences.”
While this was a start to getting the proper scientific vetting, the science community was eager to see what good old NASA had to say. So according to the leaked paper that will be published next month in the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Journal of Propulsion and Power the EmDrive is capable of creating thrust in a vacuum.
What is more the NASA team at Eagleworks is getting closer to understanding why this engine would seem to violate a law of physics. Using Quantum mechanics the scientists believe that this thrust is the result of something called a pilot wave. A pilot wave generates the probabilities we observe along with a real particle that has a determined path and velocity. However this theory has been controversial and on its own is not fully accepted by science.
The NASA team concluded that the EM Drive generates force of 1.2 millinewtons per kilowatt in a vacuum. For comparison NASA’s huge new Hall thrusters generate 60 millinewtons per kilowatt. However they point out that these thrusts require fuel and a spacecraft to carry them into space which offsets the higher thrust. While this is exciting progress the results from the new paper will still need to be tested by additional groups of scientists.
It is a push in the right direction. It looks like we will soon be riding in Star Trek level space ships, having a quick vacation on the moon, or moving to Mars to “study abroad.”
Do you think the EmDrive will help us get to the planets anytime soon?
Follow Phil Haney on Twitter @PhilHaney