Faster-than-light travel may be a possibility after an accidental discovery by NASA scientists, but researchers are cautioning observers not to get too excited about taking a week-long trip to Alpha Centauri just yet. The new engine technology — once believed to be impossible — is now successful in tests for the third time.
The electromagnetic (EM) propulsion drive, or EM Drive, which might make hyperspace travel possible bounces microwaves within a closed container in order to provide thrust. This very notion appears to be contrary to some of the most basic laws of physics, including Newton's Third Law of Motion, which states that for every action, there is an equal but opposite reaction. Traditional rocket engines are driven by this tenet of physics — as propellant is accelerated out through the exhaust of an engine, the movement creates an opposite reaction pushing the spaceship forward.
Albert Einstein is among the scientists best known for outlining reasons that traveling faster than the speed of light should be impossible — among other problems, the mass of an object increases with velocity. A spaceship accelerating to the speed of light would add an infinite amount of mass, making it impossible to propel.
British engineer Roger Shawyer first proposed the idea of an EM Drive about 15 years ago, but it was greeted with extreme skepticism by scientists who declared the principle of the device to be unfounded. However, in 2010, Chinese physicists reported they observed an accelerating force in such a device, an experiment confirmed by NASA in 2014. Neither of those experiments was conducted in a vacuum, leading some researchers to believe the purported effect was just the result of experimental error.
Eagleworks Laboratories, which carries out Advanced Propulsion Physics Research for NASA, has now carried out the third successful test of an EM Drive in a hard vacuum. The results were the same as the earlier experiments, showing the production of a force that could result in an acceleration.
Using such an engine could propel spacecraft from the Earth to the moon in four hours, or to Mars in just 70 days. This would allow space travelers to spend 90 days on the Red Planet before returning home.
"While the fast Mars transits that Q-Thruster technology [EM drive] could enable would be revolutionary, the independence from the limitations of departure and arrival windows may ultimately be more so," researchers report.
Amateur and professional physicists gathered together online to analyze the results of the experiment, although no official statement from NASA has been issued.
Applications for such an engine are not limited to faster-than-light travel. Such engines, without the need for propellant, could keep the International Space Station (ISS) in orbit without the need for intermittent boosts in altitude. Replacing a traditional propellant system on an average geostationary satellite would reduce the mass needed to be launched into space from 3 tons to 1.3 tons, significantly reducing costs.
The experiments are still a long way from powering spacecraft, but another Star Trek technology may one day become real.