NASA’s EmDrive actually works, and science can’t explain why

23 Nov 2016

NASA branded rocket. Image: Nadezda Murmakova/Shutterstock

The saga surrounding NASA’s development of a new deep space exploration engine – known as the EmDrive – took another twist, as the concept was published in a peer reviewed journal, despite it defying what we know about physics.

The EmDrive – or the ‘warp drive’, as it has been called a number of times in the past – has drawn great interest from those interested in space exploration and the possibility that we could soon be exploring our planetary neighbours.

Until now, all we have known about the ‘Electromagnetic Drive’ is that it is a theoretical propulsion system that uses electromagnetism to propel itself forward in a vacuum at an unparalleled speed.

Better than solar sails

One example regularly given is that if the EmDrive was fully operational, it could take us from Earth to Mars in as little as 70 days, compared with the several months it takes using existing propulsion.

The only problem is that, according to Isaac Newton’s third law of motion, every action has an equal and opposite reaction – yet the EmDrive does not appear to emit any exhaust to propel itself forward.

This week, a surprise was in store for the future of space exploration as a peer reviewed paper about the EmDrive appeared in the Journal of Propulsion and Power for the first time.

According to the paper, the engine works by bouncing microwave photons against a conical copper chamber, which has resulted in an engine that creates 1.2 millinewtons of thrust per kilowatt of energy used.

In terms of how it compares to existing forms of propulsion, it finds itself dwarfed by the output of chemical propulsion rockets, but is considerably more powerful than solar sails.

Despite the backing of this core concept of a technology that many still deem unachievable, NASA itself has remained quiet on the matter.

A lot more testing to be done

While the space agency is quick to highlight major scientific breakthroughs, it has yet to comment on this latest EmDrive news, stating in previous interviews that it is too early to say anything just yet.

This would appear to be the same view shared by the researchers actually working on the project, who have put forward nine different ways in which the EmDrive might have achieved these results incorrectly.

These include the possibility of rogue air currents or even some leaky electromagnetism from within the engine.

While experimentation with the EmDrive will continue for some time, a commercial rival engine developed by a company called Cannae plans to test its own engine in orbit very soon.

NASA branded rocket. Image: Nadezda Murmakova/Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic