This ‘impossible’ EM drive is about to be tested in space

Now that a peer-reviewed paper showing the lawbreaking EM Drive propulsion system actually appears to work has been published, the developer of a similar engine plans to put his invention in space to prove that it can truly create thrust without producing exhaust.

According to Popular Mechanics, Guido Fetta, chief executive of Cannae Inc. and inventor of the Cannae Drive – a reactionless propulsion unit similar to the EM Drive originally proposed by British engineer Roger Shawyer in 1999 – wants to definitively put an end the debate by proving once and for all whether or not the so-called impossible engine will work in space.

Like the EM Drive, the Cannae Drive is a closed system filled with microwaves that produces no exhaust, yet which is apparently capable of producing thrust, even though doing so would seem to violate the laws of physics. As the website explained, Shawyer believes that relativistic effects produce different radiation pressures at the opposite ends of his drive, resulting in a net force.


The EM drive has been one of the most interesting prospects in recent years. (Credit: NASA)

Fetta, Popular Mechanics continued, claims that his invention uses a similar concept, except it uses Lorentz (electromagnetic) forces instead. In both cases, the engines would require no fuel, something that critics claim is impossible, as generating a forward thrust with no accompanying equal and opposite force (in the form of propellant) would violate the law of the conservation of momentum. Yet somehow, the newly-published study says that it appears to work.

In fact, the NASA Eagleworks Laboratory team that tested the EM Drive found that the device could consistently generate 1.2 millinewtons per kilowatt of thrust (+/-0.1 mN/kW) in a vacuum, which is considerably more than what most solar sails produce, ScienceAlert said. Just how it does this remains somewhat of a mystery, though the Eagleworks team suspects that pilot-wave theory is somehow involved in the process.

Probe to remain in orbit for six months; likely to launch in 2017

Fetta intends to put the debate to bed once and for all, according to Popular Mechanics. Back in August, he announced plans to test out his thruster on a 6U cubesat, or a small satellite about the size of a small shoebox, and now he has partnered with Tempe, Arizona-based LAI International and SpaceQuest Ltd. of Fairfax, VA to bring his plans to fruition.

The three firms have combined to form a company known as Theseus, and if their plans turn out to be successful, they intend to offer the Cannae Drive for use to other satellite makers, they said on the Cannae website. The propulsion system will take up roughly 25% of the cubesat, Popular Mechanics noted, and the goal is to leave the satellite in orbit for at least six months.

That would be quite a feat, as most satellites of similar size only remain in orbit for six weeks at most. As the website pointed out, the longer the Cannae Drive-powered cubesat remains in orbit, “the more the satellite will show that it must be producing thrust without propellant.”

“A success would be a very big deal for the satellite business,” Popular Mechanics said, noting that it is “a limiting factor for low-altitude satellites” because they must be able to generate thrust at specific intervals in order to counter atmospheric drag, and that while solar panels can provide some energy, running out of fuel essentially dooms orbiting probes.

Theseus said that the primary objective of their proposed mission “is to demonstrate our thruster technology on orbit,” while the secondary goals “include orbital altitude and inclination changes performed by the Cannae-thruster technology.” They added that they anticipate their thruster will “use less than 10 watts of power to perform station keeping thrusting.” While no launch date for this mission has yet been announced, Popular Mechanics says that 2017 “seems likely.”


Image credit: Cannae Inc.