Even if you don’t keep up with developments in space propulsion technology, you’ve still probably heard about the EmDrive. You’ve probably seen headlines declaring it the key to interstellar travel, and claims that it will drastically reduce travel time across our solar system, making our dreams of people walking on other planets even more of a reality. There have even been claims that this highly controversial technology is the key to creating warp drives.
These are bold claims, and as the great cosmologist and astrophysicist Carl Sagan once said, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” With that in mind, we thought it’d be helpful to break down what we know about the enigmatic EmDrive, and whether it is, in fact, the key to mankind exploring the stars.
So without further ado, here’s absolutely everything you need to know about the world’s most puzzling propulsion device.
This article is periodically updated in response to news and developments regarding the EM Drive and the theories surrounding it.
A new, leaked NASA paper points to potentially working EmDrive
A leaked NASA paper obtained by the International Business Times via a post by a user on the NASA Spaceflight forums. The post was originally deleted by the forum’s moderators, however, the document has since been posted and remains currently viewable here. The paper is ostensibly the same that was discussed earlier in the year (reported below). The information in the paper clearly points to a working version of the EmDrive, and while it’s yet to be published, it is still set to run in the Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ scientific journal, AIAA Journal of Propulsion and Power.
As discussed below, this is a massive step forward for the EmDrive and for those who believe in the theoretical technology. If the paper on NASA’s findings does in fact pass muster and see the light of day — which seems very likely — it’ll be a boon for further research and development of the EmDrive tech. This would open the door for continued study and tests, and may finally put humans on the road to fast, lightweight space travel.
An EmDrive paper has finally been accepted by peer review
Originally, this article pointed out that previous studies and papers on the EmDrive have either not been submitted, or passed peer review. Those days are in the past, however, given a NASA Eagleworks’ paper on the EmDrive test which has reportedly passed the peer review process and will soon be published by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ AIAA Journal of Propulsion and Power.
This is an important step for the EmDrive as it adds legitimacy to the technology and the tests done thus far, opening the door for other groups to replicate the tests. This will also allow other groups to devote more resources to uncovering why and how it works, and how to iterate on the drive to make it a viable form of propulsion. So, while a single peer-reviewed paper isn’t going to suddenly equip the human race with interplanetary travel, it’s the first step toward eventually realizing that possible future.
What is the EmDrive?
Simply put, the EmDrive is a conundrum. First designed in 2001 by aerospace engineer Roger Shawyer, the technology can be summed up as a propellantless propulsion system, meaning the engine doesn’t use fuel to cause a reaction. Removing the need for fuel makes a craft substantially lighter, and therefore easier to move (and cheaper to make, theoretically). In addition, the hypothetical drive is able to reach extremely high speeds — we’re talking potentially getting humans to the outer reaches of the solar system in a matter of months.
We’re talking potentially getting humans to the outer reaches of the solar system in a matter of months.
The issue is, the entire concept of a reactionless drive is inconsistent with Newton’s conservation of momentum, which states that within a closed system, linear and angular momentum remain constant regardless of any changes that take place within said system. More plainly: Unless an outside force is applied, an object will not move.
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.” 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.
How does the EmDrive “work?”
Setting aside the potentially physics-breaking improbabilities of the technology, let’s break down in simple terms how the proposed drive operates. The EmDrive is what is called an RF resonant cavity thruster, and is one of several hypothetical machines that use this model. These designs work by having a magnetron push microwaves into a closed truncated cone, then push against the short end of the cone, and propel the craft forward.
This is in contrast to the form of propulsion current spacecraft use, which burn large quantities of fuel to expel a massive amount of energy and mass to rocket the craft into the air. An often-used metaphor for the inefficacy of this is to compare the particles pushing against the enclosure and producing thrust to the act of sitting in a car and pushing a steering wheel to move the car forward.
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