One of the most exciting aspects of the current era of space exploration (Space Age 2.0) is how time-honored ideas are finally being realized. Some of the more well-known examples include retrievable and reusable rockets, retrieval at sea, mid-air retrieval, single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) rockets, and kinetic launch systems. In addition, there are also efforts to develop propulsion systems that do not rely on conventional propellants. This technology offers many advantages, including lower mass and improved energy efficiency, ultimately leading to lower costs.
On June 10th, 2023, an all-electrical propulsion system for satellites (the IVO Quantum Drive) will fly to space for the first time. The system was built by North Dakota-based wireless power company IVO, Ltd., and will serve as a testbed for an alternative theory of inertia that could have applications for propulsion. The engine will launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket as part of a dedicated rideshare (Transporter 8) hosted by commercial partner Rogue Space Systems. If the technology is validated, the Quantum Drive could trigger a revolution in commercial space and beyond. And if not, then we can relax knowing that the laws of physics are still the laws of physics!
It is no secret that the world is undergoing a major transition in terms of energy, transport, manufacturing, and infrastructure. In addition to advancements in computing, 3D printing, and artificial intelligence, a major driving force behind these changes is the desire for cleaner, more sustainable alternatives. This has led to innovations like wireless internet and devices, electric cars, EV charging stations, and miniaturized solar cells and wind turbines. Unfortunately, these innovations rely on toxic batteries and unsafe charging technologies.
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Founded in 2017 by Richard Mansell, Ken Mansell, Daniel Telehey, and Matthew Silbernagel, IVO was launched to address the major issues facing technology and innovation today. To this end, IVO has focused on developing wireless energy transmission solutions using a technology known as Capacitive Based Aerial Transmission (CBAT). This flexible, scalable technology allows manufacturers to reduce their battery size by up to 50% and is on track to disrupt the green energy industry.
In addition, the past decade has seen a sharp increase in the number of commercial space companies, leading to innovations like reusable rockets and microsatellites. Because of this, space has become far more accessible, with more nations, companies, and academic institutions sending payloads to orbit. Alas, the space industry is still reliant on propellants that are toxic (or produce toxic byproducts) or produce huge amounts of greenhouse gas. Using kerosene and methane-based fuels, rocket launches can release up to 100 times more CO2 into the atmosphere (per passenger) than a long-distance flight.
In 2021, IVO began to develop a new all-electrical propulsion system that leveraged an alternate theory about inertia. Known as the IVO Quantum Drive, this proposed system relies on the theory of Quantized Inertia (QI), a controversial idea that many physicists view as a fringe theory.
The theory of QI was first proposed in 2007 by University of Plymouth physicist Mike McCulloch as an alternative to the Lambda Cold Dark Matter (LCDM) model. This theory was an attempt to reconcile General Relativity (GR) and Quantum Field Theory (QFT) to explain the rotational curves of galaxies in a way that did not require Dark Matter (and as an explanation for the Pioneer Anomaly). The theory comes down to two essential elements:
McCulloch also claimed that this theory could provide a foundation for launching space vehicles without fuel. The theory has been challenged repeatedly, and in 2012, astrophysicists solved the Anomaly by concluding that non-uniform heat emission from the spacecraft slowed their speed. Nevertheless, in recent years, McCullough and his colleagues were awarded a DARPA grant to conduct experiments to investigate QI in a laboratory setting. With the launch of the IVO Quantum Drive, the theory will be tested in space for the first time.
If validated, such a system would provide multiple advantages over conventional propellants, the most notable of which is extreme efficiency. According to IVO, a single Quantum Drive can achieve up to 52 millinewtons (mN) of thrust from a single watt of electricity supplied via a combination of onboard power storage and solar power. This would be a considerable improvement over Hall-Effect thrusters (ion engines), which can achieve 25–250 mN of thrust, have lower energy efficiency (65-80%), and require more power – 1–7 kilowatts (kW).
Another benefit, according to IVO, is the modular design of the thruster, which allows multiple units to be stacked (and on multiple axes) to achieve greater thrust and meet the needs of individual spacecraft. On top of that, a typical Hall-Effect thruster will weigh more than 200 kg (440 lbs), while a single external and internal Quantum Drive unit weighs just 186.6 grams and 103.5 grams (6.6 and 3.65 oz), respectively. As co-founder Telehey, now the Chief Operating Officer of IVO Ltd., told Universe Today via email:
“The IVO Quantum Drive really is a total departure from the current limitations of modern space propulsion. It is the first pure electric propulsion device, meaning it requires only electricity to run. Gone are the days of complex fuel systems which require special fuel solutions to propel the spacecraft. As long as we have electricity, we have thrust, which is why unlimited Delta-V is possible for the first time ever. Due to its self-contained nature, this is the first propulsion device that can be completely internal to a spacecraft.”
The self-contained thruster can also be mounted in any orientation, offering up to 6 degrees of freedom. Eliminating propellants would also eliminate the need for bulky and heavy storage tanks, reducing a spacecraft’s overall mass and increasing its payload capacity. Lastly, a propulsion system that doesn’t require propellant removes the need for satellite refueling or deorbiting due to fuel limitations. Said Telehey, these advantages “will drive the most dramatic shift in terms of cost reduction that the space industry has ever seen.”
Already, IVO Ltd. has worked with E-Labs (a Virginia-based testing and evaluation facility) to validate the Quantum Drive in a simulated space environment. As Mansell described it:
“The Quantum Drive was tested and the thrust was measured within high vacuum chambers (down to 4×10-6 Torr) in multiple configurations to eliminate possible artifact forces such as electromagnetic, electrostatic, Lorentz, Corona discharge, ion wind, etc. Control Drives were also produced to provide baseline measurements. All test setups were evaluated by third-party individuals. All Quantum Drives showed thrust consistent with predicted Quantized Inertial calculations. Control Drives confirmed that thrust measurements were not consistent with any other known forces.”
To test their propulsion system in space, IVO Ltd. has teamed up with orbital robotics developer Rogue Space Systems. Rogue is engineering the first generation of Orbital Robots (known as OrbotsTM) to facilitate humanity’s growing presence in space. The Orbot family currently consists of the Laura Orbot, designed to inspect, monitor and observe, and Fred, designed to move satellites and other assets to and from different orbits. A third spacecraft is planned, the details of which are to be announced sometime later this year.
All three spacecraft are supported by an operating system that incorporates machine learning and autonomous capability – the AI-Enabled Sensory Observation Platform (AESOP). This system allows the Orbots to operate autonomously, compensating for communication lags and periods when the spacecraft is not visible to control stations on the ground. It also provides collision avoidance and proximity tracking, allowing the Orbot to position itself automatically near a target satellite and determine how to service it properly.
“Our partnership with Rogue Space Systems stems from our shared passion for innovation and an ultimate objective to expand human capability,” said Telehey. “Humanity has been looking up at the stars for thousands of years with wonder and curiosity. Now, for the first time in the history of humanity, we have the ability to reach out and touch these distant places. Our organizations take this seriously and, together, IVO and Rogue intend to make history.”
Naturally, the news of this test and the company’s claims have been met with considerable skepticism by many scientists. Notably, there’s Andrew Higgins, a professor of mechanical engineering at McGill University and the leader of the Interstellar Flight Experimental Research Group. In 2018, Higgins published a paper titled “Reconciling a Reactionless Propulsive Drive with the First Law of Thermodynamics,” where he demonstrated that an electromagnetic drive that does not use propellant was not physically sound.
According to Higgins, electromagnetic devices that do not rely on propellant can generate no more than 3.33 micronewtons per kilowatt (?N/kW) of thrust, or else they end up being a kind of perpetual motion machine. This is due to the fact that applying constant force results in constant acceleration, which means that the object’s kinetic energy increases quadratically over time, whereas the energy input increases linearly. As a result, the object’s kinetic energy will exceed the energy input, and (if this energy is collected via deceleration) there would be a net gain in energy.
In short, the concept violates the First Law of Thermodynamics, which states that the internal energy (E) of a system is equal to the difference between the heat transfer (Q) into a system and the work (W) done by the system – expressed mathematically as E2-E1=Q-W. As Higgins told Universe Today via email:
“My take on the IVO Quantum Drive is the same as the EM drive, the Woodward Mach effect thruster, or any other device that claims to take a power input and generate thrust output, with no other interactions with a reaction mass or some other mass to push against. It is trivial to show such a device can be converted into a perpetual motion machine of the first kind. That is, a machine that just generates power from a black box, with no other interactions.”
In response, Mansell has stated that the Quantum Drive is not a reactionless system and is not comparable to the EM Drive. “The Theory of Quantised Inertia provides for some unique ways to move spacecraft without fuel and without violating Newton’s laws of motion,” he said. “The Quantum Drive uses electricity and our patent pending configuration to move spacecraft. This configuration has been tested as much as it can on Earth’s surface. The next and definitive test will be in LEO.”
Based on current levels of growth, the commercial space sector is projected to reach a total value of $1.4 trillion by 2030. Similarly, the green energy sector is projected to reach $1.4 trillion before the end of the decade. These parallel developments illustrate the potential for companies in space, where accessibility is increasing, and the demand for cleaner, safer, and more efficient alternatives is high. And therein lies the point of this demonstration, which is to test the system and the theoretical physics on which it is based.
If it fails, scientists can rest easy that the laws of physics don’t need to be revised. If it succeeds, it will open the door to tremendous opportunities. Ultimately, it seems fair to say that everyone (pro or con) is excited to see what comes of it!
The launch is scheduled for June 10th and will be live-streamed via SpaceX’s Youtube feed. You can also watch the countdown and track the launch via the IVO Ltd website.
Further Reading: IVO Ltd., Rogue Space Systems
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