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Space engine of the future could have turned out to be an illusion

Konstantin Sheiko
June 7, 2018

For the past few years, researchers at NASA's Eagleworks advanced-propulsion lab have been putting a controversial and potentially revolutionary space engine called the EmDrive to the test. The EmDrive, which was originally developed by British scientist Roger Shawyer in the early 2000s, purportedly generates thrust by bouncing microwaves around inside a conical chamber.

Because the engine does not require any fuel, it could theoretically make spaceflight far cheaper and more efficient, opening the heavens to exploration, and turning sci-fi Star Wars and Space Odyssey 2001 into reality. Amazingly, the NASA team's work has given EmDrive enthusiasts some reason for optimism, detecting small amounts of thrust in lab tests of the device.

But now we get to the "controversial" part - the EmDrive really should not work. The engine does not blast anything out a nozzle, so Newton's Third Law of Motion - for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction - does not come into play. Nobody really understands, or explains how the claimed thrust could actually be generated.

However, now it seems that the previously detected thrust was illusory, at least according to a team of researchers in Germany. They built their own EmDrive and tested it in a vacuum chamber, as the NASA researchers did. The German team picked something up as well. But follow-up analysis "clearly indicates that the 'thrust' is not coming from the EmDrive, but from some electromagnetic interaction," the researchers wrote in their new study.

That interaction is likely between EmDrive power cables and Earth's magnetic field, the team concluded. The German team, which was led by Martin Tajmar of the Institute of Aerospace Engineering at Technische Universität Dresden, also presented its results in May at the Space Propulsion 2018 conference in Seville, Spain.

The new results probably won't be the last word on the EmDrive; other researchers may want to take a crack at it as well. But if you have been counting on this impossible engine of the future to help humanity get out among the stars, you may want to recalibrate your expectations - the laws of physics have won again, it would appear.

Photo Nasa / ESA