‘Impossible’ Space Engine May Actually Work, NASA Test Suggests

By Mike Wall

 

It’s really starting to look as if an “impossible” space propulsion technology actually works.

Researchers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston have found that a microwave thruster system that requires no propellant does indeed generate a small amount of thrust, Wired UK reported Thursday (July 31). If the technology pans out, it could make spaceflight far cheaper and speedier, potentially opening up much of the cosmos to exploration, advocates say.

“Test results indicate that the RF [radio frequency] 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,” the NASA team wrote in their study, which they presented Wednesday (July 30) at the 50th Joint Propulsion Conference in Cleveland.

The roots of the propulsion system tested by the NASA team trace back to a British researcher named Roger Shawyer, who claims that his “EmDrive” generates thrust by rocketing microwaves around in a chamber. There is no need for propellant, as solar power can be used to produce the microwaves.

Shawyer says that his company, Satellite Propulsion Research Ltd., has successfully tested experimental versions of the thruster. But many scientists have dismissed or downplayed such claims, saying the propulsion system violates the law of conservation of momentum, Wired UK reported.

In 2012, however, a team of Chinese researchers built their own version of the system and found that it does indeed work, generating enough thrust to potentially power a satellite. Then, an American scientist named Guido Fetta constructed his own device, which he calls the “Cannae Drive,” and convinced the NASA team — which included warp drive researcher Sonny White — to try it out, which they did over the course of eight days in August 2013.


A rebuttal to this article can be found here.

 

27 COMMENTS

  1. “Test results indicate that the RF [radio frequency] 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,” the NASA team wrote in their study, which they presented Wednesday (July 30) at the 50th Joint Propulsion Conference in Cleveland.

    This kind of extreme speculation is possibly worth a look, but there is a need to checkout missed, unexpected forces, on the mechanism which could be misinterpreted, when tiny forces are being measured in an experiment.

    There are already working designs for feasible propulsion systems using radio-waves and microwaves, but these use propellants.

    http://www.adastrarocket.com/aarc/technology

    http://www.space.com/23613-advanced-space-propulsion-vasimr-engine.html

    Even those electric drives which use propellant (not to be confused with fuel) have very low thrusts and low (but long-term) small acceleration.

  2. Clearly if this space engine is demonstrating that it can generate thrust it should not be described as ‘impossible’. Perhaps ‘improbable’ is a better description? I, for one, look forward to where improbable technology may take us. It seems that Douglas Adams may have been on to something after all.

    On a serious note, for this technology to ‘open up the cosmos’ surely some kind of fuel source will be required, the report mentions solar power only hence no additional fuel – but surely this will only work in very close proximity to a star.

    • Steve_M Aug 6, 2014 at 7:38 am

      On a serious note, for this technology to ‘open up the cosmos’ surely some kind of fuel source will be required,

      It is important in dealing with electric rocketry to distinguish fuel from propellant! Fuel provides the energy, propellant provides the exhaust mass to provide thrust from an equal and opposite reaction.

      In this OP link, they are suggesting some sort of subatomic particles may be used as propellant:

      http://www.space.com/26713-impossible-space-engine-nasa-test.html

      The thruster may work by somehow harnessing the subatomic particles that continuously pop into and out of existence, the NASA researchers suggest. The results and the technology are promising enough to warrant further study, they wrote in the study.

      “Future test plans include independent verification and validation at other test facilities,” the researchers wrote.

      This speculative claim is following the earlier “EmDrive” which met with much scepticism.

      It would be a big breakthrough IF it is confirmed to work!

      @Steve – the report mentions solar power only hence no additional fuel – but surely this will only work in very close proximity to a star.

      The various forms of electric powered rockets, can be fuelled from photovoltaic cells, radioisotope thermoelectric generators, nuclear reactors, or fusion power sources. Solar cells are only useful in the inner Solar System where the sunlight is strong enough.

      • Hi Alan,

        I was thinking that the differentiation of fuel and propellant is somewhat minor given that in conventional rocket engines ‘fuel’ and ‘oxidant’ are mixed to form ‘propellant’ which is then expelled out of the engine nozzle to provide thrust. But then again, it appears that I was looking at it too simplistically… it is rocket science after all!

        You are right to point out the clearer distinction between propellant and fuel in electric rocketry rather than conventional, seeing as other electric engines do require a separate propellant from their power source.

        I agree with you that it would be a great breakthrough if confirmed to work – and would open the way to say nuclear (or RTG) powered space travel over longer timeframes than currently possible, requiring no additional fuel/oxidant/propellant other than that used by the reactor itself to generate electricity to power the engine.

        • Steve_M Aug 6, 2014 at 8:40 am

          You are right to point out the clearer distinction between propellant and fuel in electric rocketry rather than conventional, seeing as other electric engines do require a separate propellant from their power source.

          I agree with you that it would be a great breakthrough if confirmed to work – and would open the way to say nuclear (or RTG) powered space travel

          For decades, all the outer Solar System Probes (Voyager, new horizons etc.) + the Mars Curiosity Rover have their instruments powered by RTG units. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radioisotope_thermoelectric_generator.

          over longer timeframes than currently possible, requiring no additional fuel/oxidant/propellant other than that used by the reactor itself to generate electricity to power the engine.

          The VASIMR electric engine I mentioned in my first comment is to be tested boosting the orbit of the ISS.

          http://www.fromquarkstoquasars.com/vasimr-impulse-engine/

          2008, NASA and Ad Astra signed a deal to test a VASIMR platform on the I.S.S.. Testing VASIMR on the I.S.S. will provide extremely valuable information because the station is in Low Earth Orbit, and is subjected to fairly high levels of atmospheric drag, this requires periodic altitude boosts which will be preformed by VASIMR.

          The current technology for altitude correction on the I.S.S. is standard chemical rockets. If VASIMR proves to be up to the job, it would mean that we could keep the I.S.S in a stable orbit for 1/20th of the current cost, effectively cutting $210 million of chemical rocket fuel from the NASA budget. Currently, NASA is expecting to launch the VF-200 to the I.S.S. at some point in 2015; however, because the I.S.S does not have the 200kW needed to operate the VF-200, they will also be sending a battery booster system, which will be trickle charged from the I.S.S. power supply, and will allow for 15 minute pulses of thrust.

          people have been skeptical towards Ad Astra’s claims of being able to travel to Mars in 39 days. A lot of this appears to arise because people think the 39 day journey claim is using the current VX-200 engine design; however, this is incorrect. The 39 day journey uses a theorized 200MW engine, not the current 200kW engine we have.

          This difference in engines also touches on the other bit of controversy that people have been holding onto–VASIMR does not produce enough thrust to escape the Earth’s gravity. This is not a design flaw, but the intended method for the engine to run. Since ion engines work best in a vacuum, the VASIMR engine is suited for space travel only, any space craft the engine was adapted to would either need to be built in space, or would have to reach space via chemical rocket. This of course does not mean the project is a failure, in fact the notion that NASA is planning to use VASIMR on the space station instead of the HiPEP system NASA had funded 5 years before signing a deal with Ad Astra shows NASA is more than confident with the VASIMR engine.

          Electric engines are designed to run for long periods in space, NOT to provide Earth launch systems.

          VASIMR could be powered from any portable electric generator including nuclear or fusion.

          There was also earlier discussion of refuelling craft or probes with mined propellants from moons, asteroids, or comets, as interplanetary or interstellar travel develops.

          https://richarddawkins.net/2013/11/for-profit-asteroid-mining-missions-to-start-in-2016/#li-comment-118415

          https://richarddawkins.net/2013/11/for-profit-asteroid-mining-missions-to-start-in-2016/#li-comment-118423

        • Steve_M Aug 6, 2014 at 8:40 am

          You are right to point out the clearer distinction between propellant and fuel in electric rocketry rather than conventional, seeing as other electric engines do require a separate propellant from their power source.

          There high energy power-sources could be used to provide electricity for various drives and forms of instrumentation.

          I agree with you that it would be a great breakthrough if confirmed to work – and would open the way to say nuclear (or RTG) powered space travel over longer timeframes than currently possible,

          RTG, nuclear, (and for that matter fusion) powered space-craft can operate with a range of types of drive.
          Many experiments are not well known!

          http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/non-power-nuclear-applications/transport/nuclear-reactors-for-space/

          Nuclear Reactors and Radioisotopes for Space

          (Updated July 2014)

          Radioisotope power sources have been an important source of energy in space since 1961.
          Fission power sources have been used mainly by Russia, but new and more powerful designs are under development in the USA.

          After a gap of several years, there is a revival of interest in the use of nuclear fission power for space missions.

          While Russia has used over 30 fission reactors in space, the USA has flown only one – the SNAP-10A (System for Nuclear Auxiliary Power) in 1965.

          Early on, from 1959-73 there was a US nuclear rocket program – Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Applications (NERVA) – which was focused on nuclear power replacing chemical rockets for the latter stages of launches. NERVA used graphite-core reactors heating hydrogen and expelling it through a nozzle. Some 20 engines were tested in Nevada and yielded thrust up to more than half that of the space shuttle launchers. Since then, “nuclear rockets” have been about space propulsion, not launches. The successor to NERVA is today’s nuclear thermal rocket (NTR).

  3. The claimed thrust is between 30 and 50 micronewtons. Note the size of the uncertainty! When the actual effect is so small that it cannot be measured accurately it is quite possible that it is actually zero. The weird and wonderful attempts to explain it do not inspire confidence either.

    Cold Fusion is 25 years old, and has been discredited to the satisfaction of most scientists, but people are still working on it, they just need more time (and money). I expect this will be the same, just another example of pathological Science, along with N-rays and polywater.

  4. Unsurprisingly, Wikipedia has an article on this. For those of you wondering: the results have apparently been replicated; the theory behind it is rich in mathematical formalism rather than being a vague “weird so quantum” reaction as if Deepak Chopra was in charge; and the results, though counter-intuitive, are concordant with ongoing research on unusual methods of propulsion. Oh, and as for those of you pointing out solar power is decent only near a star, I’ll remind you that, in the absence of power, an already moving spaceship keeps going at the same speed in the same direction. As long as acceleration near a star reaches a decent speed, the journey can be “short”. Once you’re near the target star, you regain the ability to steer; until then, said ability isn’t useful, since space is almost completely empty.

    • Hi Jos,

      I’ll remind you that, in the absence of power, an already moving spaceship keeps going at the same speed in the same direction. As long as acceleration near a star reaches a decent speed, the journey can be “short”. Once you’re near the target star, you regain the ability to steer; until then, said ability isn’t useful, since space is almost completely empty.

      I suspect this approach of rapid acceleration close to a star followed by a long period of constant speed may not be the ideal way to travel across interstellar distances. Firstly, the high levels of acceleration required may be difficult to achieve with electric propulsion systems that, at least at present, have highly limited thrust compared to conventional rocket systems. Secondly, there is the human element – people don’t tend to be particularly comfortable when accelerated or decelerated rapidly and potentially subjected to long periods of zero gravity in between. The ideal solution for longer distance travel may be to sustain constant acceleration (unsurprisingly Wikipedia has an article on this too!) at close to 1g for as long as possible, which would provide artificial gravity to the spacecraft occupants without the drawbacks of centrifugal AG (ie large ship size/low rotation rate required to avoid associated crew discomfort/sickness (Wikipedia again!). Half way through the journey the craft could flip around an provide thrust for deceleration at around 1g for the final half of the journey to bring the craft safely to a stop at its destination.

        • David Aug 7, 2014 at 8:34 am

          Orion Project:

          Not to be confused with the modern Orion space-craft.

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Orion_(nuclear_propulsion)
          in the 50′s demonstrated that pulsed atomic explosions with suitably robust shock absorbers could accelerate potentially very large crafts at 1G for interstellar distances.

          This was a very early, very crude, idea. These days nobody is suggesting dirty nuclear launch vehicles. The modern ideas are essentially nuclear power-stations in space.

          • It might be crude but nothing else comes close to the efficiency of this idea. Hell yeah it’s dirty but what else could launch 1000′s of tonnes into space in one go? You could get a space elevator started with just a couple of trips, which might be worth the couple of lives it took to get there.

          • David Aug 7, 2014 at 9:09 am

            It might be crude but nothing else comes close to the efficiency of this idea. Hell yeah it’s dirty but what else could launch 1000′s of tonnes into space in one go?

            The most efficient system I have seen proposed, is asteroid mining of material already in space, combined with manufacture and 3D printing of parts to assemble craft orbiting in space. This avoids the need for launching heavy materials from planets’ high G gravity fields altogether.

          • Alan,

            Can you 3D print people in space? How do you get the mining equipment up in the first place, never mind the power you’d need to run the show? What about trace elements? Sounds like you have the beginnings of a self replicating seed factory there, which to my mind is a bit more sci-fi even than the Orion project.

          • @David

            Hell yeah it’s dirty but what else could launch 1000′s of tonnes into space in one go?

            Its carbon neutral too – the perfect ‘green’ solution to space travel! :-)

        • There’s a good doco on YouTube and TED about this. The story has been collected and presented by George Dyson about his famous physicist Dad’s involvement in the project.

          There’s multiple reasons for the project’s demise but to some extent low cost technology enabling humans to leave Earth to explore remote star systems depended on the perfection of very large numbers of very low cost, tiny nuclear bombs. That this technology was merely a strong possibility of coming to fruition needed to be buried alongside Indiana Jones’ Ark of the Covenant in Area 51.

          I think they were less concerned about air pollution than about religious fundamentalists getting hold of the technology to help god implement scriptural prophecies. They were very interested in colonising space at the time, but didn’t want to be too rushed into things owing to the impending loss of the Earth.

          Human nature being the over-riding constraint rather than the laws of physics and economics.

  5. Jos Gibbons Aug 7, 2014 at 1:31 am

    Oh, and as for those of you pointing out solar power is decent only near a star, I’ll remind you that, in the absence of power, an already moving spaceship keeps going at the same speed in the same direction. As long as acceleration near a star reaches a decent speed, the journey can be “short”.

    There are severe limitations on this. In order to reach speeds which give reasonable journey times to stars, massive G forces would be required if only a passage in the inner Solar System using solar power was used for the acceleration.

    That is why there is a focus on long term low thrust systems and concepts of mined fuel in the outer system.

    Once you’re near the target star, you regain the ability to steer; until then, said ability isn’t useful, since space is almost completely empty.

    While most of space is “empty” objects in Solar orbit have been detected almost as far out as half way to Centauri. In any case most craft have thruster jets for orientation and trajectory corrections.

    • Good point; even if you could manage a pretty huge 1G acceleration for a whole month, it only gets you to 0.09C, but in that time you’d have travelled 36 billion kilometres and the sun would be a mere spec. The nearest star would still be 50 years away.

      Solar power might be ok for manoeuvring satellites or propelling slow-moving interplanetary probes, but it’s never going to come close to powering inter-stellar journeys. For that we need to look at the most compact and powerful energy sources we have to hand, and that will have to be nuclear.

      • David Aug 7, 2014 at 8:59 am

        Good point; even if you could manage a pretty huge 1G acceleration for a whole month, it only gets you to 0.09C, but in that time you’d have travelled 36 billion kilometres and the sun would be a mere spec. The nearest star would still be 50 years away.

        There is quite a lot of serious work being done on this – and last I heard they were aiming for a velocity of about 0.12C.

        http://www.icarusinterstellar.org/publications/

        http://www.icarusinterstellar.org/papers/optimisation.pdf

        The Daedalus spacecraft design was a two-stage configuration carrying 50,000 tonnes of
        DHe3
        propellant. Daedalus was powered by electron driven Inertial Confinement Fusion
        (ICF) to implode the pellets at a frequency of 250 Hz. The mission was to Barnard’s star
        5.9 light years away in a duration of around 50 years. This paper is related to the
        successor Project Icarus, a theoretical engineering design study that began on 30
        September 2009 and is a joint initiative between the Tau Zero Foundation and The
        British Interplanetary Society. In the first part of this paper, we explore ‘flyby’ variations
        on the Daedalus propellant utilisation for two different mission targets: Barnard’s star
        and Epsilon Eridani, 10.7 light years away. With a fixed propellant mass a number of
        staged configurations (1–4) are derived for an optimal configuration but then moving to
        an off-optimal configuration due to the requirement for a high final science payload
        mass.

  6. David Aug 7, 2014 at 10:06 am

    Can you 3D print people in space?

    That is just silly!
    People will travel in shuttle craft.

    But NASA have already 3D printed high temperature rocket motor injectors on Earth using sintered metal printing, and are currently experimenting printing in 3D plastic on the ISS. Robot mining systems don’t need people, although manned operations could be used.

    How do you get the mining equipment up in the first place, never mind the power you’d need to run the show?

    Initial operations do not need to be large. Have a look at my earlier links to the discussions of asteroid mining.

    What about trace elements?

    There are plenty of elements and trace elements on rocks flying around the Solar-System. The ones which are buried deep in the core of the Earth, are much more accessible on the aggregated broken debris of asteroids and comets.

    Rosetta captures high resolution images of comet 67P
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-28671805

  7. ” is potentially demonstrating an interaction with the quantum vacuum virtual plasma.”

    There is no such thing as “quantum vacuum virtual plasma”. Quantum vacuum yes, but the rest is rubbish. NASA got the same result from the working and the ‘Null’ model

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