NASA’s EM Drive Passes Peer Review, But Don’t Get Your Hopes Up

Article written: 6 Sep , 2016
Updated: 5 Oct , 2016
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The “impossible” EM Drive (also known as the RF resonant cavity thruster) is one of those concepts that just won’t seem to die. Despite being subjected to a flurry of doubts and skepticism from the beginning that claim its too good to be true and violates the laws of physics, the EM Drive seems to be clearing all the hurdles placed in its way.

For years now, one of the most lingering comments has been that the technology has not passed peer-review. This has been the common retort whenever news of successful tests have been made. But, according to new rumors, the EM Drive recently did just that, as the paper that NASA submitted detailing the successful tests of their prototype has apparently passed the peer review process.

According to a story by International Business Times, the rumors were traced to Dr. José Rodal, and independent scientist who posted on the NASA Spaceflight Forum that the paper submitted by NASA Eagleworks Laboratories passed peer review and will appear in the Journal of Propulsion and Power, a publication maintained by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA).

A model of the EmDrive. EM Drive prototype by NASA/Eagleworks, via NASA Spaceflight Forum

A model of the EmDrive. EM Drive prototype by NASA/Eagleworks. Credit: NASA Spaceflight Forum

Now before anyone gets too excited, a quick reality check is necessary. At this time, everything said by Dr. Rodal has yet to be confirmed, and the comment has since been deleted. However, in his comment, Rodal did specify the paper would be titled “Measurement of Impulsive Thrust from a Closed Radio Frequency Cavity in Vacuum”.

He also named the papers authors, which includes Harold White – the Advanced Propulsion Team Lead for the Johnson Space Center’s Advanced Propulsion Physics Laboratory (aka. Eagleworks). Paul March was also named, another member of Eagleworks and someone who is associated with past tests.

On top of all that, the IB Times story indicated that he also posted information that appeared to be taken from the paper’s abstract:

“Thrust data in mode shape TM212 at less than 8106 Torr environment, from forward, reverse and null tests suggests that the system is consistently performing with a thrust to power ratio of 1.2 +/- 0.1 mN/Kw ()”.

Artist Mark Rademaker's concept for the IXS Enterprise, a theoretical interstellar spacecraft. Credit: Mark Rademaker/flickr.com

Artist Mark Rademaker’s concept for the IXS Enterprise, which relies on the Aclubierre Drive – something NASA’s Eagleworks is also investigating. Credit: Mark Rademaker/flickr.com

But even if the rumor is true, there are other things that need to be taken into account. For instance, the peer-review process usually means that an independent panel of experts reviewed the work and determined that it is sufficient to merit further consideration. It does not mean the conclusions reached are correct, or that they won’t be subject to contradiction by follow-up investigations.

However, we may not have to wait long before the next test to happen. Guido Fetta is the CEO of Cannae Inc., the inventor of the Cannae Drive (which is based on Shawyer’s design). As he announced on August 17th of this year, the Cannae engine would be launched into space on board a 6U CubeSat in order to conduct tests in orbit.

As Fetta stated on their website, Cannae has formed a new company (Theseus Space Inc.) to commercialize their thruster technology, and will use this deployment to see if the Cannae drive can generate thrust in a vacuum:

“Theseus is going to be launching a demo cubesat which will use Cannae thruster technology to maintain an orbit below a 150 mile altitude.  This cubesat will maintain its extreme LEO altitude for a minimum duration of 6 months.  The primary mission objective is to demonstrate our thruster technology on orbit.  Secondary objectives for this mission include orbital altitude and inclination changes performed by the Cannae-thruster technology.”

Artist's impression of Pluto and its moons. Credit: NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute

If feasible, a mission using the EM Drive could travel from Earth to Pluto in just 18 months, compared to the 9.5 years taken by the New Horizons mission. Credit: NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute

By remaining in orbit for six months, the company will have ample time to see if the satellite is experiencing thrust without the need for propellant. While no launch date has been selected yet, it is clear that Fetta wants to move forward with the launch as soon as possible.

And as David Hambling of Popular Mechanics recently wrote, Fetta is not alone in wanting to get orbital tests underway. A team of engineers in China is also hoping to test their design of the EM Drive in space, and Shawyer himself wants to complete this phase before long. One can only hope their drives all prove equal to the enterprise!

While this could be an important milestone for the EM Drive, it still has a long way to go before NASA and other space agencies consider using them. So we’re still a long away from spacecraft that can send a crewed mission to Mars in 70 days (or one to Pluto in just 18 months).

Further Reading: Emdrive.com, Popular Mechanics, IB Times

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22 Responses

  1. laurele says

    How long would the EM drive take to get to Proxima b?

  2. Torbjorn Larsson OM says

    “independent scientist”. Which means it is one of the garage tinkerers that frequent the site. and “Dr.” is a – most likely unwarranted – honorary. [Or it could be this PhD in Civil engineering, who seems to work as an applied mathematician: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Jose_Rodal .]

    This is such an old pseudoscience idea. And the forces they try to measure are deliberately small, at 10^-4 of Earth surface gravity or the equivalent of the weight of a 1/100 of a piece of letter paper, in order that they won’t stop tinkering.

    • michael1 says

      the chinese have published a paper on the drive and their version has a lot more thrust per kilowatt though admittedly pretty low. you seem to expressing a religious bias against the idea not a science based one.

  3. gopher65 says

    Isn’t that a picture of an Eagleworks “warp ship”, not an EM-drive ship? The rings around the outside are warp nacelles.

    • Member
      TomArt says

      That’s what I thought – the rings were for generating the warp field according to Dr. Sonny White’s reduction of the Alcubierre Drive.

      But, the rings could also be where people live – two counter-rotating rings for gravity simulation.

      • Member
        TomArt says

        Of course, Dr. White’s work is a problem, as well. Assuming the calculations are correct, they were able to work out a solution where the amount of energy needed to warp spacetime was within reach of current technology. The catch is that the energy needs to be negative. Since nobody knows what that is, nor how to generate it, he’s stuck. Last i knew, he was working on trying to warp space with positive energy (using strong magnetic fields and passing light through them via lasers). There is a really good YouTube video of a lecture he gave back in 2013. Worth watching.

      • gopher65 says

        Well… no, not within current technology. The energy requirements for a very small probe to create and maintain a warp field were still far far greater than the total energy output of Earth. (About the only interesting work that Dr. White has done is show that by shaping the warp field differently, you can reduce the amount of negative mass required to form a large enough spacial compression wave to move your probe/ship from ~1 Jupiter mass to ~100kg. You still need negative mass though.)

        And yes, negative mass or energy probably doesn’t exist. And even if it did, and even if you could use it to form a warp field, as you approached the speed of light inside a warp field, the whole thing should collapse into a black hole:P.

        So superluminal travel via warp field is probably impossible for a number of different reasons.

    • Member

      Yep, its also a concept being developed by Harold White, hence why I included it. However, the caption didn’t explain that. I’ve amended due to people pointing that out, incessantly! 🙂

  4. Member
    TomArt says

    I remember when one of these patent applications came up before the US Patent & Trademark Office over a decade ago. They rejected the application under the utility provision of 35 USC 101 – it doesn’t work – the design cannot function – it cannot produce thrust. Period. For whatever reason, the British patent office granted a few patents on this EM drive. I found them through Google Patents, then looked up the whole document from Espace.net. The guy is a quack.

    If you take a railroad tank car, taper it so that one end is smaller than the other, and pressurize it, guess what – it’s not going to go anywhere! This Shawyer character is claiming that he’s doing exactly that, except with microwaves! He’s setting up a standing wave in a tapered cavity, and claims to be generating thrust because the photon pressure on the small end is higher than on the other end. Uh-huh. Suuuurre. That’s why our soda cans just start levitating (bottom is concave, top is relatively flat). That’s why our beer bottles start levitating, as well… #eyeroll.

    Check out this independent review of his work:
    http://www.emdrive.com/ReviewofDMtechreport.pdf

    The guy basically says, it doesn’t add up. The mathematical derivations are incomplete, the explanations for different graphs of experimental data is insufficient or non-existent…just reeks of baloney, though stated respectfully and professionally. I did not see a link to the document that the individual is critiquing.

  5. crocodilebomb says

    I see progress here. As sketchy as this is, it’s a lot more likely to happen than “terraforming Venus”.

  6. Manu says

    This has all the trappings of pseudoscience (aka scam). Am I surprised UT falls for it? Sadly, no.

  7. entrance says

    I hope, the em drive will work. It would be great, if we could reach planets in other solar systems.

    Colonizing other planets would solve our main problem: overpopulation on earth. But it will certainly take some further centuries, till we can travel to other planets. Until then we have to find an other solution for this problem.

    I am ready to help.

  8. jjb says

    I’ve read all the posts and the thing is, that I guess is M.I.A. in some of the posts:

    They are at least trying to move forward.

    True experiments, tests and investigations require failure as well as successes. But you have neither if you do not TRY.

    Space X have had their successes and failures, but they are still moving forward.

    Being 61, I remember the trials and errors of NASA back in the 50’s and 60’s. There were A LOT of rockets that did not make it off the launch pad, let alone a few feet into the air.

    But eventually, we got man on the Moon and back, we got the Space Shuttle and so on.

    These are the ‘ baby steps ‘ that are just part of the process.

    I also remember a lot of ” Dr’s. ” – “Prof’s ” and so, that said, we would NEVER make it to the moon. The physics, the technology is just not there. I, for one, am glad the nay Sayers did not win. 🙂

  9. Member
    Aqua4U says

    I like that someone will perform experiments to prove or disprove this theoretical concept and of course am hoping for the best. But what I REALLY like is what former astronaut Dr. Franklin Chang Diaz and Ad Astra has been doing with their plasma drive concept. This engine does require fuel and a yet to be fully defined power source (Solar or Nuclear TBD) but is a more ‘traditional’/proven approach aka like a super ion drive. This sucker IS going up to the ISS meaning that NASA takes them seriously… http://www.adastrarocket.com/aarc/VASIMR

    • Member
      Aqua4U says

      Personally, I totally like the concept of using electro dynamic forces for propulsion. What I’d like to see.. is a 10km diameter geodesic structure that incorporates superconducting struts (Graphine coated graphite spars?) The idea is to build the sphere, then suspend propulsion and command modules via cabling to the vertices of the geodesic shape. A separated propulsion module would be nuclear powered and far enough away from the command module so rads don’t bake the crew… This vehicle would capture the solar wind and energetic CME’s for propulsion. Trick would be to energize the superconducting struts in patterns that make best use of the E/M flow. Outbound would be easy.. inbound would require oblique vectoring or ‘sailing’ with planetary gravitational assist(s). The solar wind travels between 8km/sec. in close to Sol and 800km/sec further out…

  10. Member
    Aqua4U says

    Earth to martiancommander.. We can’t hear you above the laughter…

  11. michael1 says

    the chinese have built a drive with more thrust per kilowatt than NASA. If you look at their numbers that thrust is very very very low per kilowatt.

  12. BrianFraser says

    I don’t know why this EM “drive” continues to receive so much publicity. There are others that would work far better and yet receive no publicity at all. See:

    “Improved apparatus and method for gravitational modification”, http://www.freepatentsonline.com/WO1998023976A2.pdf

  13. BrianFraser says

    There are all sorts of patents for electromagnetic drives. Here is another sample from http://www.freepatentsonline.com/5142861.pdf “Nonlinear electromagnetic propulsion system and method”:

    “An electromagnetic propulsion system based on an extremely low frequency (elf) radiating antenna structure driven by a matched high current pulsed power supply is described. The elf antenna structure resembles a modified three dimensional multiple-turn loop antenna whose geometry is optimized for the production of reaction thrust rather than the radiation of electromagnetic energy into space.”

    This device does NOT use “particulate reaction mass”. It needs only an energy source (e.g., nuclear reactor) for sustained propulsion. It is conceptually capable of propulsion to nearby stars within an accessible time period.

    A Newtonian propulsion system produces thrust by the well known “action accompanied by equal and opposite reaction”. The total momentum of the vehicle and exhaust sum to zero.

    A non-Newtonian propulsion system produces thrust, but the reaction forces are radial (i.e., all perpendicular to the action) and cancel out within the structure of the vehicle (there is no external reaction). This favors vehicles with a radial symmetry, such as a saucer or sphere. Only electromagnetic systems can produces this kind of thrust.

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