Nasa approves 'impossible' space engine design that apparently violates the laws of physics and could revolutionise space travel

Engineers from the space agency managed to produce tiny amounts of thrust using a microwave engine design that could turn space travel on its head

In a quiet announcement that has sent shockwaves through the scientific world, Nasa has cautiously given its seal of approval to a new type of “impossible” engine that could revolutionize space travel.

In a paper published by the agency’s experimental Eagleworks Laboratories, Nasa engineers confirmed that they had produced tiny amounts of thrust from an engine without propellant  – an apparent violation of the conservation of momentum; the law of physics that states that every action must have an equal and opposite reaction.

Traditional spacecraft carry vast amounts of fuel with them into orbit in order to move about, using the thrust created by this fuel to move in zero gravity like a swimmer in a pool pushing off against a wall. This method works fine but it's costly - both in terms of obtaining the fuel and then launching all that extra weight into space.

The Atlantis Space Shuttle launches - the brown tank is all for fuel.

Nasa’s engineers have tested an engine known as a ‘Cannae Drive’, a machine that instead uses electricity to generate microwaves, bouncing them around inside a specially designed container that theoretically creates a difference in radiation pressure and so results in directional thrust.

In an ordinary engine the rocket moves forward as fuel is flung backwards - the momentum of the rocket (a measure of both its mass and velocity combined) is 'conserved' because it is moved from the rocket to the fuel. However, with the Cannae Drive there is no fuel - the microwaves aren't expelled from the engine (as ions are with weak-but-reliable Ion Thrusters) they're just kind of moved about within the container.

All this might be theoretical no more however. Nasa’s scientists tested a version of the drive designed by US scientist Guido Fetta and found that the propellant-less engine was able to produce between 30 and 50 micronewtons of thrust – a tiny amount (0.00003 to 0.00005 per cent of the force of an iPhone pressing down when held in the hand) but still a great deal more than nothing.

(Fetta has said that the name refers to the Battle of Cannae when a small Carthaginian force led by Hannibal improbably defeated a much larger Roman army - although many have suggested that he is also referring to the engineer Scotty in the Star Trek series and his recurring and plaintive protest that he 'cannae change the laws of physics'.)

 
The results, first reported by Wired UK, are less than a thousandth of the thrust produced in tests by Chinese engineers of a similar invention known as the EmDrive - another fuel-less thruster designed by British scientist Roger Shawyer. Bother Shawyer and Fetta have spent year evangelizing their designs but this has invited as much suspicion as it has support, with many looking sceptically on claims that apparently violate the laws of physics.

It's not surprising then that Nasa is presenting its positive test results as objectively as possible, with its engineers making no attempt to explain the mechanisms at play and instead only reporting on the integrity of the test procedures and their results. They did, however, allow themselves a brief moment of speculation:

"Test results indicate that the RF resonant cavity thruster design, which is unique as an electric propulsion device, is producing a force that is not attributable to any classical electromagnetic phenomenon and therefore is potentially demonstrating an interaction with the quantum vacuum virtual plasma.” (emphasis added).

A model of the EmDrive - the shape of the engine (including numerous interior wells and channels) are intended to create directional thrust from microwaves.

This 'quantum vaccum' is what the microwave drives might theoretically be 'pushing off' against - it's essentially a dimension of the Universe that represents the lowest energetic state physically possible; a ‘base layer’ of reality that physicists sometimes suggest might be the origin of the equally mysterious ‘dark energy'.

If all this sounds like the realm of science fiction, well it is - so far. Despite multiple experiments now confirming that these ‘impossible’ drives work, there’s still plenty of room for mistakes (see for example the 2011 CERN experiments that mistakenly observed faster-than-light neutrinos) and recreating the physical vacuum necessary for the tests could go wrong in countless ways.

Still, if further experiments continue to confirm the reality of these microwave thrusters then it could trigger a new era of space travel. Nasa's involvement is no guarantee of success, but it does suggest that scientists are taking the possibility of 'impossible' engines seriously. Perhaps we should too.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jay Z has placed a bet on streaming being the future for music and videos
music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury
music
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own