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

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/
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/

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:, Popular Mechanics, IB Times