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
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: C# .NET Developer / Application Support - Junior

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This business has an industry r...

Recruitment Genius: Office Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: They make daily deliveries to most foodservice...

Recruitment Genius: Transport Planner

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: They make daily deliveries to most foodservice...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - C#, ASP.Net, MVC, jQuery

£42000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is looking for a C# ...

Day In a Page

Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
Singapore's domestic workers routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals

Singapore's hidden secret of domestic worker abuse

David Cameron was shown the country's shiniest veneer on his tour. What he didn't see was the army of foreign women who are routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals
Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

Solved after 200 years

The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

Sunken sub

Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

Age of the selfie

Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

Not so square

How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

Still carrying the torch

The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

...but history suggests otherwise
The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

The bald truth

How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

Tour de France 2015

Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

A new beginning for supersonic flight?

Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash
I would never quit Labour, says Liz Kendall

I would never quit party, says Liz Kendall

Latest on the Labour leadership contest
Froome seals second Tour de France victory

Never mind Pinot, it’s bubbly for Froome

Second Tour de France victory all but sealed
Oh really? How the 'lowest form of wit' makes people brighter and more creative

The uses of sarcasm

'Lowest form of wit' actually makes people brighter and more creative