Cannae drive technology, a way of propelling spaceships using microwave energy, has been successfully tested by NASA. Such an engine, if thoroughly developed, could shorten the time needed for a trip to Mars from months to weeks. The biggest surprise of the test was that the system worked at all -- theory said the engine would not be able to produce any amount of thrust -- even the small amounts of power seen in the test.
The experiment involved filling a specially-designed container with microwaves. The uneven shape of the canister creates a difference in radiation pressure, causing a thrust forward, toward the larger end of the vessel. Despite what most physicists predicted, the device started to produce a small amount of thrust, slightly over 0.0001 ounces.
That amount of force is not large, but just the fact that any at all was measured baffles scientists. The conservation of momentum states that no thrust at all should be produced by such a system.
A pair of Cannae drives were produced for the tests. While one was built according to its design, the other was purposely manufactured to fail. Investigators were shocked when each of the drives produced a net thrust.
NASA performed earlier tests on the Cannae drive that also showed similar levels of thrust from the improbable engine. Those experiments were carried out in August 2013 and January 2014. This new study was an updated test of the system.
Some scientists believe the drive may be interacting with the quantum vacuum of the Universe. This is the lowest energy state possible for any piece of matter.
If further tests of similar systems are successful in larger Cannae engines, the design could allow the manufacture of ultra-lightweight rockets that could bring human travelers to the nearest star in just 30 years.
"Approximately six days of test integration were required, followed by two days of test operations, during which, technical issues were discovered and resolved... [T]he test article was tested on the bench, then moved to the chamber, then moved back as needed to resolve issues," NASA officials detail in a paper describing the results of the experiment.
Cannae Drive is a private company, owned and operated by Guido Fetta, who has a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering.
"Space missions that once lived only in the realm of science fiction are now feasible. From dramatically reduced satellite costs, to manned missions to the outer solar system and beyond, the Cannae Drive is the enabling technology for 21st century space travel," Cannae drive developers wrote on their website.