An ‘impossible’ rocket could get us to the Moon in 4 hours

There's a problem with space. It's too big.

Everything mankind wants to visit, from the Moon, to Mars, to Kepler-452b, is a long way away. It either costs us millions to reach our "near" neighbours, or billions to look at them through a telescope. 

But the dreams of Star Trek fans the world over may soon be realised, with the announcement that a high-speed rocket system previously thought impossible, might actually work.

Back in 2001, a British engineer Roger Shawyer and UK company Satellite Propulsion Research Ltd came up with the proposal for an electromagnetic propulsion drive - or EM Drive. Their theoretical invention (which you can read about in full here) turned solar energy into microwaves.

So far, so GCSE-level Physics. The significant aspect of Shawyer's proposal involved the way in which the microwaves were contained in an enclosed unit: as the microwaves push against the enclosed chamber, it would create thrust in the opposite direction. Which sounds fair enough - except that it defies the accepted laws of physics. In the 'conservation of momentum', if something moves in one direction, something else is being pushed in the opposite direction. The microwaves clashing about inside an enclosed chamber would just cancel each other out.

The scientific community laughed at Shawyer's proposals, and most went back to "proper" ideas that worked inside accepted laws... until a group of Chinese scientists had a go at building their own, and found it was producing "thrust". Then an American made one, and gave it to NASA to test. And now, Martin Tajmar, a professor and chair for Space Systems at Germany's Dresden University of Technology, has made another one

What's so odd about the EM Drive is that there still isn't an adequate understanding of how it does what it does - but it's hugely exciting that different teams keep producing "working" models. The drive is capable of producing a huge amount of thrust in comparison to its size - an order of magnitude greater than the rockets groups like SpaceX is currently using

In theory, a EM Drive could power a ship to the Moon in four hours and reach Mars in a matter of days, with no solid fuel other than solar energy. If it works.

"Our test campaign cannot confirm or refute the claims of the EM Drive but intends to independently assess possible side-effects in the measurements methods used so far," said Professor Tajmar.

"Nevertheless, we do observe thrust close to the actual predictions after eliminating many possible error sources that should warrant further investigation into the phenomena."

So what now? Well, Tajmar's findings will need to be subject to a peer review, which could be tricky given the growing scepticism of a number of scientists. There could be problems with the manner in which the levels of thrust are being detected, and indeed that there could be some other level of subatomic physics at play. But there's a chance, just a chance, that we might be close to understanding a technology that will take us to the stars.


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