Over the last few years, we’ve heard a lot about the EmDrive NASA has been working on at its Eagleworks lab under the direction of Doctor Harold White. Also known as the EM Drive, the EmDrive is based on a concept developed by Roger Shawyer in the UK in 1999. The unusual – indeed seemingly impossible – feature of the EmDrive is that it uses no fuel to produce propulsion. Now a peer-reviewed article has appeared at Aerospace Research Central supporting the idea that the EmDrive might actually work.
One of the primary criticisms of the EmDrive was that it had not undergone the rigorous peer review process necessary for publication in a professional journal. But now it has, with the paper being released online early before being officially published in December.
Why Physicists Are Confused
Newton’s third law of motion requires that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Logically, this would suggest that for any rocket engine to operate it has to use fuel to push the rocket in the opposite direction. But the EmDrive doesn’t seem to do this. Instead, microwaves bounce around inside a chamber without being expelled from the other end.
In short, this system seems to produce a push without pushing against anything. In the tests the scientists at NASA have been conducting for more than a year now, the mechanism has shown a very small but consistent thrust. When skeptics argued that thermal effects were causing this startling result, the scientists placed the EmDrive in a vacuum to insulate it — and still got the same outcome.
The amount of thrust is much less than what you would get from a conventional rocket, but since the EmDrive NASA is testing would require no fuel supply — other than electricity supplied by solar panels — the mass of the currently imaginary spacecraft using it would be far less, more than offsetting the lower thrust.
Potential Uses for the EmDrive
NASA won’t be building any spaceships in the near future based on the EmDrive. For one thing, it needs much more testing to confirm it actually works and to understand how it works if it does. But assuming it does work and they can figure it all out, what could we do with the EmDrive?
As reported by Science Alert, indications are that a spacecraft powered by an EmDrive propulsion system would be able to get to the moon in only four hours. Currently, it takes days to go to the moon and back. More importantly for NASA and Elon Musk over at SpaceX, this ship would be able to travel from Earth to Mars in only 70 days.
Current methods for getting to Mars require months or even years – depending on the position of Mars at the time of launch. Elon Musk’s recently announced plans for sending humans to Mars at some point in the next decade, and ultimately colonizing the red planet, would be much easier to implement if he had access to a functioning EmDrive.
Of course, there are also plenty of Earth-based potential applications for the EmDrive NASA has tested. If it really does work as advertised, it’s possible to imagine the flying cars we’ve dreamed about since the 1950s finally becoming a reality.
How Does It Work?
In the peer-reviewed paper just published by the scientists involved in the project at NASA, they tend to focus on the results they’re getting rather than trying to explain precisely how the EmDrive does what it does. The truth is the American, German and Chinese scientists who have tested the EmDrive simply don’t know how it works.
Even so, the authors of this most recent paper do suggest that quantum mechanics might play a role in producing this effect. They feel that quantum mechanics – and in particular the way waves and particles operate – maybe different than generally thought.
According to Motherboard, the EmDrive NASA scientists seem to feel that the thrust they are getting from their new engine may be a consequence of what is known as pilot-wave theory. The latest plan is to put one of these devices in orbit to see if they can actually push a small satellite. If it does, the skeptics will largely be silenced.
[Featured Image by Harold White/NASA]