OPINION: EmDrive: the future of travel or a technological long shot?
Fifteen years ago, an aerospace engineer named Roger Shawyer drafted the first designs of the EmDrive, a new type of engine that uses microwaves to propel spaceships instead of fuel. Understandably, the scientific community (and the pseudo-scientific online community) leapt onto Shawyer’s designs with quite a bit of rancor.
This is because Shawyer’s designs are in clear and direct violation of Newton’s third law: there is an action (the microwaves pushing their vehicle forward) without any form of pushback that didn’t come from the public outcry against his design. Note that although I am personally incredibly excited for the EmDrive and its potential, I have stayed away from calling Shawyer’s design for the drive an invention because despite its promising math and more-than-promising tests, Shawyer’s drive is still that — a promise.
A promise that NASA itself has decided to back by inducting the EmDrive into its Advanced Propulsion Physics Laboratory, nicknamed Eagleworks by the physicists stationed there, whose entire purpose is to research strange methods of spacecraft propulsion.
The EmDrive was reconstructed and tested by NASA’s Eagleworks in November 2015, and it found the machine produced thrust. They repeated the tests again, with equipment designed to correct for any tremors and once again, the results were in Shawyer’s favor.
Now, with this basic affirmation that the EmDrive is functional using microvolts at least, we can begin to discuss the implications Shawyer’s designs have for space travel. Without the weight of fuel, spaceships can begin to be constructed in more cost-effective ways. They need neither fuel tanks nor the infrastructure to support fuel tanks. The price and materials needed for any form of spacecraft takes a sharp decrease. The thrust given by the EmDrive is also much more potent than our traditional thrusters (in part because of newly lost dead weight), and could theoretically get us to Pluto within a year.
And although peer review is curiously lacking in the EmDrive’s department, Shawyer’s promise is as ambitious as it could be monumental.