NASA scientists have reported that they’ve successfully tested an engine called the electromagnetic propulsion drive, or the EM Drive, in a vacuum that replicates space. The EM Drive experimental system could take humans to Mars in just 70 days without the need for rocket fuel, and it’s no exaggeration to say that this could change everything.
But before we get too excited (who are we kidding, we’re already freaking out), it’s important to note that these results haven’t been replicated or verified by peer review, so there’s a chance there’s been some kind of error. But so far, despite a thorough attempt to poke holes in the results, the engine seems to hold up.
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The engine is controversial because it seems to violate one of the fundamental concepts of physics – the conservation of momentum, which states that for something to be propelled forward, it needs some kind of propellant to be pushed out in the opposite direction. But the EM Drive doesn’t require any propellant in order to create thrust, it simply relies on electromagnetic waves.
However, British scientist Roger Shawyer, who invented the EM Drive in the early 2000s, disagrees that his design violates the conservation of motion. “To put it simply, electricity converts into microwaves within the cavity that push against the inside of the device, causing the thruster to accelerate in the opposite direction,” writes Mary-Ann Russon over at The International Business Times, who interviewed Shawyer after the story on NASA Spaceflight went viral.
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Engineers over at NASA’s Eaglework Laboratories have been trying to work out whether or not the results are real for months, and they’ve now ruled out their main hypothesis for why there would be an error by showing that the engine works in a vacuum. “Despite considerable effort within the NASASpaceflight.com forum to dismiss the reported thrust as an artefact, the EM Drive results have yet to be falsified,” write José Rodal, Jeremiah Mullikin and Noel Munson for NASA Spaceflight, one of the leading space flight news sites.
So what does all this mean? If the results can be replicated and verified in a vacuum (something that Eaglework engineers plan to do in the coming months), it would change the way we travel in space, and open up access not only to planets in our own Solar System, but in the systems beyond.
For starters, our payloads would become a whole lot lighter without the need for rocket fuel. It would also speed things up incredibly.