em drive
March 26, 2016

NASA’s futuristic EM Drive’s design undergoing peer review

The debate over an “impossible” fuel-free engine that could purportedly transport people from Earth to Mars in less than 10 weeks may soon be resolved, as media outlets reported this week that a paper detailing the device is currently undergoing the peer-review process.

According to the Daily Mail and the International Business Times, researchers at Eagleworks Laboratories, NASA’s advanced propulsion physics research division, confirmed in a March 17 post on the NASA Spaceflight forum that research into the controversial EM Drive was “NOT dead” and that a new study detailing its design could be published in the near future.

Those comments, the IB Times said, “seems to indicate that the researchers are confident of having significant results to reveal” regarding the EM Drive, a device that purportedly creates thrust by bouncing microwaves around an enclosed chamber and relies solely on solar power.

While the notion of fuel-free space travel is undoubtedly attractive, and has generated a lot of buzz in some scientific communities, others argue that the EM Drive cannot possibly live up to its promises and that the design contradicts the laws of physics. If a paper detailing just how the device plans to do what it claims it can do is indeed currently undergoing peer review, it could reveal once and for all whether or not such an engine is actually feasible.

So how is the EM Drive supposed to work, anyway?

The concept of the EM Drive was first proposed in 1999 by British scientist Roger Shawyer, who said at the time that, based on the theo5ry of special relativity, electricity could be converted into microwaves and fired inside a closed, cone-shaped chamber. Doing so, he said, would cause the microwave particles to exert more force on the flat end of the cone and generate thrust.

The microwaves would be powered by solar energy, meaning that the engine would require no propellant, which in turn means that satellites and spacecraft could be far smaller and lighter as they would not have to carry fuel with them. It would also enable humans to travel much further in space, as they could create their own propulsion en route to their destination.

Critics, however, argue that the concept is impossible (or at the very least implausible) because it violates the laws of physics. Shawyer’s hypothesis cannot work, some say, because in order for a thruster to gain momentum in one direction, a propellant must be expelled in the other one. Since the EM Drive is a closed system and uses no fuel, it may could violate the law of conservation of momentum by producing a forward thrust with accompanying no equal and opposite force.

The engine resurfaced last year when researchers at Eagleworks Laboratories claimed that they had produced results with the EM Drive in a vacuum that external interference could not explain. That re-ignited the debate over Shawyer’s controversial claims, with different teams of scientists arguing that it was or was not possible to use microwaves to generate fuel-free propulsion.

‘Fraction of a chance’ that the concept could actually work

So have the geniuses at Eagleworks come up with a way to actually produce thrust without needing fuel? Does this mean we could someday actually be able to travel to Mars in less than three months? While there is always hope, many experts remain skeptical when it comes to the feasibility of the EM Drive concept.

“The EM Drive has always been dubious at best. A tenuous connection to NASA has made the idea sound more plausible, but it isn't,” said Popular Mechanics. “People get starry eyed at the idea of a low-power microwave drive that could propel humanity to the stars and forget the cardinal rule of technology: that if something seems to violate the law of physics, then there's probably something wrong with the analysis, not the physics.”

“The next few months could bring an end to this silly episode in hyperbolic research,” they added, admitting that there is ‘the small-fraction-of-a-chance’ that the design of the device may actually pass the peer-review process, “at which point it maybe, just maybe, EM Drive technology has a ghost of a chance of being a reality. At the very least, get the popcorn ready.”


Image credit:Roger Sawyer