Could the so-called EmDrive be close to debuting for real, helping spacecraft travel through space and producing thrust without the help of propellant? One month after NASA’s exciting study on the drive that suggested it may work, Chinese researchers have just confirmed that they’ve been running some tests on their own version of the drive in low-Earth orbit, adding some intrigue to what some have called a modern-day “space race” with the U.S.
According to Digital Trends, the EmDrive was originally designed in 2001 by Roger Shawyer as a propulsion system that doesn’t rely on conventional means to operate. That means that it doesn’t make use of fuel to do its work, thus making spacecraft considerably lighter and easier to maneuver, while also potentially reducing costs. Another exciting aspect of the drive is its potential to push spacecraft to unusually high speeds – as Digital Trends described it, that could mean sending humans to the outer reaches of the solar system in mere months, instead of years.
The EmDrive also stands out as an interesting system for another reason – it defies one of Isaac Newton’s well-known laws.
“Reactionless drives are named as such because they lack the ‘reaction’ defined in Newton’s third law: ‘For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction,'” wrote Digital Trends.
“But this goes against our current fundamental understanding of physics: An action (propulsion of a craft) taking place without a reaction (ignition of fuel and expulsion of mass) should be impossible. For such a thing to occur, it would mean an as-yet-undefined phenomenon is taking place — or our understanding of physics is completely wrong.”
The recent saga of the EmDrive began last month when a NASA Eagleworks study had become the first such paper on the drive to pass peer review. Published in the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ Journal of Propulsion and Power, the paper was notable for saying that the drive produces 1.2 millinewtons per kilowatt of thrust. That’s a very low figure compared to the ones produced by existing drives that rely on propellant, but the drive is far more powerful than light sails, which generate just 6.67 micronewtons per kilowatt as the most popular type of zero-propellant propulsion.
Nonetheless, the authors weren’t thinking of performance when they wrote the paper – they just wanted to see if the EmDrive works or not.
That was also the goal of Chinese researchers, who, according to Science Alert, began testing the EmDrive in low-Earth orbit, in hopes that the system would serve as the propulsion system for their satellites. But the China Academy of Space Technology went far beyond these tests, as a source close to the institution was quoted as saying that China’s Tiangong-2 space laboratory already has an EmDrive onboard.
CAST communication satellite division head Chen Yue also claimed to have gotten similar results to NASA’s tests when it came to their EmDrive’s thrust performance.
“National research institutions in recent years have carried out a series of long-term, repeated tests on the EM Drive. NASA’s published test results can be said to re-confirm the technology.”
At the present, CAST’s researchers are reportedly working on their EmDrive’s cavity design and optimizing thruster position, ahead of potential test runs on Chinese satellites already in orbit. They hope to get thrust levels up to between 100 millinewtons and 1 newton in order to ensure the drive is functional. According to CAST chief designer Li Feng, their version is “currently in the latter stages” of the proof-of-principle stage, and the institution hopes that the system becomes available “as quickly as possible,” difficult a task as it may seem.
It may be a while before China is able to get its EmDrive ready for showtime, but Science Alert cautioned that there has been no published proof of the test results. As such, the new findings may be best taken with a grain of salt until actual tests in space are carried out.
[Featured Image by Andrey Armyagov/Shutterstock]