German researchers begin attempt to build ‘impossible’ space engine

22 May 2018

Image: VLADJ55/Shutterstock

A German team is attempting to build a theoretical engine that could one day take us to the outer planets of the solar system and beyond.

Despite decades of technological advancement in the world, those working in space exploration are still reliant on pretty much the same rocket engines today that Yuri Gagarin would have used to become the first person in orbit in 1961.

The problem becomes even further compounded by the fact that even when the spacecraft escapes Earth’s orbit, no craft is capable of reaching the outer solar system in anything less than a number of decades.

Slowly, however, things are starting to change with the development of new engines capable of flying spacecraft in a vacuum using lasers and even electric engines.

Challenging the laws of physics

But perhaps the most exciting technology was first patented back in 2001 by a physicist called Roger Shawyer who theorised a powerful space engine consisting of a closed copper cone bombarded with microwaves.

During its first testing by NASA in 2016 in a vacuum chamber, researchers were shocked to see that the bouncing of these microwaves off the cone actually created a small amount of thrust, challenging the existing law of physics known as the conservation of momentum.

Now, according to Motherboard, a team of German researchers is looking to get in on the act with the reveal of SpaceDrive, a research programme that will focus on exotic engine technologies, including the EmDrive.

In a paper presented to the Aeronautics and Astronautics Association of France’s Space Propulsion conference this week, the team has been putting the design to the test to rule out any possibility that the thrust found after testing was not an error during NASA’s experiment.

Future research needed

Using an incredibly precise measurement system capable of analysing thrust down to a sub-micronewton level, the team put a small amount of power into its new device – just 2W worth – which produced a thrust-to-power ratio of approximately two millinewtons per kilowatt, making it twice as powerful as the NASA design.

However, a peculiar finding showed that the engine changed the direction of thrust depending on which way it was facing, but did not change the amount of thrust being emitted.

In the research paper, the team wrote: “This clearly indicates that the ‘thrust’ is not coming from the EmDrive, but some electromagnetic interaction. Although we used twisted or coaxial cables as much as possible, some magnetic fields will eventually leak through our cables and connectors.”

The next step is to add magnetic shields to the experiment to help weed out any potential Earthly influences and prove that the engine is feasible, given that NASA’s experiment included no such shield.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic