The EM drive breaks the laws of physics -- but that doesn't stop it from working

speed of light space travel pixabay

Who needs the laws of physics, anyway?

Not NASA. At least, that is what a new peer-reviewed paper indicates. The paper discusses what was a fuel-free rocket engine, which tests now show works. But how does it work? And what does this mean for the future of space travel?

In IT Blogwatch, we are ready for liftoff.

Want to know what exactly this new type of rocket engine is? Sarah Kaplan has the background:

NASA scientists have been daydreaming about a new...rocket engine that could carry astronauts to Mars in 70 days without burning any fuel. Now, in a new paper...they say that it might really work...The paper...tested a electromagnetic propulsion system, or “EM drive.”
...
The idea for an EM drive was first published a decade ago by British engineer Roger Shawyer. He argued that...the thrust comes from radiation pressure. Microwaves inside the cavity create an imbalance of radiation that pushes against the walls and generates thrust.

So why is an EM drive important? Trent Moore explains:

Put simply, an EM drive is designed to produce thrust without the need of fuel...If it works on a large scale, it could revolutionize the way we approach space travel. Instead of having to spend most of your weight on rocket fuel, you could...install an EM drive and start flying. No refueling required.

But how does actually work? And shouldn't that be impossible? Nathaniel Scharping fills us in:

The drive works by bouncing microwaves around the inside of a cone-shaped chamber...producing thrust even though nothing is being emitted from the device. This is in opposition to the laws of physics...which state that every action must have an equal and opposite reaction.
...
To test whether the EM drive produced thrust...researchers mounted it on a pendulum that would swing to indicate movement. They tested the device...and...their results indicate that the device puts out 1.2 millinewtons of thrust -- or enough to accelerate a satellite weighing one kilogram to one mile per hour over the course of about six minutes -- for every kilowatt of power put through it...they tested the EM drive in vacuum conditions as well, and report that it performs nearly the same.

Is this definitive proof that the EM drive works? As Mike Wall explains, not quite:

The new study is just a lab test...it doesn't prove that the EM drive definitely works -- [the] team couldn't rule out all sources of experimental error, for example -- so don't let visions of EM drive-powered spaceships fill your head. However, its publication...suggests that the technology may be more than a sci-fi dream.

What does all this mean for space travel? Should we start packing our bags for Mars? Not quite -- Lulu Chang makes sure we don't put the cart before the horse:

The NASA team notes...they were simply trying to determine whether or not the EM drive really even works...with the publication of the new paper, the EM drive...seems to be the stuff...perhaps, of real science.
...
So what’s next for the EM drive? In the coming months...it’s headed to space, and if it works there, then we’ll really be talking.

And thankfully, we have at least one person willing to test the EM drive out in space. Lee offers his services:

If @NASA needs a test pilot willing to risk never returning, I'm available.
To express your thoughts on Computerworld content, visit Computerworld's Facebook page, LinkedIn page and Twitter stream.
From CIO: 8 Free Online Courses to Grow Your Tech Skills
Shop Tech Products at Amazon
Notice to our Readers
We're now using social media to take your comments and feedback. Learn more about this here.