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NASA’s peer-reviewed EM Drive paper has finally been published

NASA’s peer-reviewed EM Drive paper has finally been published thumbnail

After months of speculation and leaked documents, NASA’s long-awaited EM Drive paper has finally been peer-reviewed and published. And it shows that the ‘impossible’ propulsion system really does appear to work.

The NASA Eagleworks Laboratory team even put forward a hypothesis for how the EM Drive could produce thrust – something that seems impossible according to our current understanding of the laws of physics.

In case you’ve missed the hype, the EM Drive, or Electromagnetic Drive, is a propulsion system first proposed by British inventor Roger Shawyer back in 1999.

Instead of using heavy, inefficient rocket fuel, it bounces microwaves back and forth inside a cone-shaped metal cavity to generate thrust.

According to Shawyer’s calculations, the EM Drive could be so efficient that it could power us to Mars in just 70 days.

But, there’s a not-small problem with the system. It defies Newton’s third law, which states that everything must have an equal and opposite reaction.

According to the law, for a system to produce thrust, it has to push something out the other way. The EM Drive doesn’t do this.

Yet in test after test it continues to work. Last year, NASA’s Eagleworks Laboratory team got their hands on an EM Drive to try to figure out once and for all what was going on.

And now we finally have those results.

The new peer-reviewed paper is titled “Measurement of Impulsive Thrust from a Closed Radio-Frequency Cavity in Vacuum“, and has been published online as an open access ‘article in advance’ in the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA)’s Journal of Propulsion and Power. It’ll appear in the December print edition.

It’s very similar to the paper that was leaked online earlier this month and, most notably, shows that the drive does indeed produce 1.2 millinewtons per kilowatt of thrust in a vacuum:

“Thrust data from forward, reverse, and null suggested that the system was consistently performing at 1.2 ± 0.1 mN/kW, which was very close to the average impulsive performance measured in air. A number of error sources were considered and discussed.”

To put that into perspective, the super-powerful Hall thruster generates force of 60 millinewtons per kilowatt, an order of magnitude more than the EM Drive.

But the Hall thruster requires propellants, and that extra weight could offset the higher thrust, the team concludes.

Light sails on the other hand, which are currently the most popular form of zero-propellant propulsion, only generate force up to 6.67 micronewtons per kilowatt – two orders of magnitude less than NASA’s EM Drive, says the paper.

But the team makes it clear that they also weren’t attempting to optimise performance in these tests – all they were doing was trying to prove whether or not the drive really works. So it’s likely that the EM Drive could get a lot more efficient still.

When it comes to how the drive actually works without messing up the laws of physics, that’s a little less clear.

It’s not the focus of this paper, but the team does offer a hypothesis:

“[The] supporting physics model used to derive a force based on operating conditions in the test article can be categorised as a nonlocal hidden-variable theory, or pilot-wave theory for short.”

Pilot-wave theory is a slightly controversial interpretation of quantum mechanics.

It’s pretty complicated stuff, but basically the currently accepted Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics states that particles do not have defined locations until they are observed.

Pilot-wave theory, on the other hand, suggests that particles do have precise positions at all times, but in order for this to be the case, the world must also be strange in other ways – which is why many physicists have dismissed the idea.

But in recent years, the pilot-wave theory has been increasing in popularity, and the NASA team suggests that it could help explain how the EM Drive produces thrust without appearing to propel anything in the other direction.

“If a medium is capable of supporting acoustic oscillations, this means that the internal constituents were capable of interacting and exchanging momentum,” the team writes.

“If the vacuum is indeed mutable and degradable as was explored, then it might be possible to do/extract work on/from the vacuum, and thereby be possible to push off of the quantum vacuum and preserve the laws of conservation of energy and conservation of momentum.”

Of course, this is just one hypothesis, based on one round of tests. There’s a lot more work to be done before we can say for sure whether the EM Drive is really producing thrust – the team notes they that more research is needed to eliminate the possibility that thermal expansion could somehow be skewing the results.

And even once that’s confirmed, we’ll then need to figure out exactly how the system works.

The scientific community is also notoriously unconvinced about the propulsion system – just yesterday a Motherboard article on the EM Drive was deleted by the moderators of the popular subreddit r/Physics because they “consider the EM Drive to be unscientific”.

But is the first peer-reviewed research ever published on the EM Drive, which firmly takes it out of the realm of pseudoscience into a technology that’s worth taking skeptically, but seriously.

The next step for the EM Drive is for it to be tested in space, which is scheduled to happen in the coming months, with plans to launch the first EM Drive having been made back in September.

If it produces thrust there, the scientific community will need to sit up and take note. Watch this space.

You can read the full research paper here.

science alert


20 Comments on "NASA’s peer-reviewed EM Drive paper has finally been published"

  1. dissident on Sat, 19th Nov 2016 7:49 pm 

    I read the paper. This is not some crank fringe voodoo. It looks like the Copenhagen dogma on the interpretation of quantum mechanics is going to eventually go away.

    This device and the associated theoretical interpretation are truly revolutionary. The quantum vacuum is not “nothing”. It is real (no kidding, it has volume) and can be leveraged for propulsion. Ultimately we do not need to spew mass to reach the stars.

  2. makati1 on Sat, 19th Nov 2016 8:54 pm 

    Nothing above matters, dissident. We are about 50 years too late to reach for anything outside the little planet we live on. Only Russia and maybe France, still has the ability to even take people to and from the existing space station, and soon even they will not be making the trip. Space travel is now a wet dream of techies that are oblivious to the real world.

  3. eugene on Sat, 19th Nov 2016 9:02 pm 

    I love these magical solutions and the excitement the generate. Meanwhile the Arctic melts, Antarctic begins to disintegrate and climate hell arrives everywhere. But we live in a fantasy dream for our amusement. Nero had absolutely nothing on us. My read is the only ones in fantasy land are those with nice homes, nice incomes and the luxury of feeling secure. Too bad their kids don’t.

  4. I on Sat, 19th Nov 2016 9:09 pm 

    Seems what we’ve come up with here is thrust without propulsion. Everyone says “how could that be?” The real question should be, “why waste a moment on this?”

    If it thrusts but doesn’t propel, then what’s it worth anyway? Trash it.

  5. makati1 on Sat, 19th Nov 2016 9:14 pm 

    Right on, Eugene!

  6. GregT on Sat, 19th Nov 2016 11:23 pm 

    The nearest known ‘possibly habitable planet’ closest to ours is just slightly over 4.4 light years away. With current technologies, a team sent there today could reach it in around 78,000 years. They could then send info back as to whether the planet is really habitable or not.

  7. Apneaman on Sun, 20th Nov 2016 12:23 am 

    I’ll need to see it actually work and then I’ll say, big fucking deal. Humans couldn’t even successfully complete their little biosphere project here on earth where they evolved, so good luck in space retards.

  8. Davy on Sun, 20th Nov 2016 6:00 am 

    This is precisely the problem with man at his very essence. We are reaching for the stars in more ways than this. We are reaching for ever more complexity and the corresponding knowledge. We are like a house of cards building higher and higher while discarding the foundation and oblivious of the dangers. Instead of reaching for the stars we need to be soul searching and reaching into our very nature and our current precarious existential reality. We are on the cusp of a collapsing “Ecos”. Included in this “Ecos” is man’s modern civilization. This is our doing. This is a human extinction event.

    If we were truly sapient then we would find spiritual advancement to find meaning to the disaster we have created. This spiritual meaning would then put us on a path of adaptation and evolution in relation to the new and more dangerous ecosystem we created by negligence. This negligence was originally through ignorance but today we know better but choose to live a lie. We would adapt our civilization structures and the attitude of the people accordingly including tough decisions of survivability. We would reject the immediate industrial past without prejudice because man stumbled into this by his own devices through ignorance. This is significant because we ignorantly sought knowledge and now are paying the price. That represents an existential paradox of knowledge and an incongruous juxtaposition resulting in a catch 22. IOW ignorantly seeking knowledge ends bad.

    You might say this project is impossible and I would have to say the evidence supports that observation. Yet, look at it this way, we invest a huge amount of productive capacity in pursuit of more technology and the hubris that goes with knowledge. What if that energy was devoted to change with a corresponding structural change to our way of life? The life energy is there the will is not. This is probably a hard wiring thing and humans are not capably of devolving in areas of technology and complexity by choice.

    The other problem is the age old problem of dogma, belief, or IOW life system. Humans are not meant to be organized in groups in the billions. We are likely meant to be organized in groups in the thousands at best. In fact the smaller the better. This is also true of what the Ecos can handle. 500MIL humans is probably all the Ecos can handle and be robustly complex. We humans destroy natural complexity. That is our evolution and our hard wiring. We are proving that large populations of humans grouped by forces of competitive cooperation cannot govern themselves and successfully integrate with the earth “Ecos”. This is pointing in the direction of a die off. It is also pointing to a reality of new organizations through lower populations and complexity.

    Globalism has likely peaked. With that peak will come the peak in technology and knowledge. Our vast store of knowledge will quickly suffer dramatic entropic decay in as little as a few decades. What does not have to peak is the spiritual and the connectivity to the “Ecos”. There must be an optimum for large brain apes with a mix of spiritual and knowledge. When these basic human structures are out of balance we have superstition or fantasy. Traveling to the stars is fantasy. Believing in elaborate fanciful skydaddies is superstition. I am not degrading religion here but if you dig deep into the theology of comparative religions you can see that every religion has this base of superstition of the masses and then there is a core of truth found with a few of the learned ones. Our scientific world of academics, engineers, and scientist are little different and possessed with the fantasy of man’s exceptionalism and progressive destiny. We want to think science is pure but it is also corrupted.

    What is needed is existential humility and a rebalance. This will come at the hands of the “Ecos” and this will consist of a die off and a devolution of physical complexity. The decay and destruction of modern man will be the result. This may happen over a generation or not but it is necessary because this is the natural law of extinction and evolution found at the heart of life. No amount of technology and knowledge will transcend that reality. We are on the cusp of this change.

    You yourself can be a part of the dawning of a new man and the rejection of the past. This comes from within and can be found within a group of like-minded individuals. This will not come through globalism and technology although it is globalism and its technology that has taught us right from wrong in this regard. That reality is our destroyed connection and lack of harmony to the “Ecos”. True sapience for humans is being a reflection of the meaning found in the “Ecos”. Humans cannot find it in themselves it must come from outside human reality.

  9. Dredd on Sun, 20th Nov 2016 6:38 am 

    Science seems like magic sometimes …

  10. Go Speed Racer on Sun, 20th Nov 2016 6:57 am 

    Oh, hell ya !!
    This new EM Drive is going to enable revolutionary
    new refrigeration systems. Using only
    enough energy to light 1 christmas bulb,
    it will keep a 24-pack of beer ice cold, AND
    a few bottles of Fireball too.
    Also it has an auxiliary output to keep a hot-tub nicely heated and full of swimsuit chicks.

  11. Sissyfuss on Sun, 20th Nov 2016 8:28 am 

    Yes, let’s race to Mars to get a good look at what the Earth will be like in 100 yrs. Wise ape my ass.

  12. Nathanael on Sun, 20th Nov 2016 10:51 am 

    So, *what’s the effect on the quantum vaccuum* of dumping the thrust into it? I think it’s worth figuring this out.

  13. Cloggie on Sun, 20th Nov 2016 11:06 am 

    It defies Newton’s third law, which states that everything must have an equal and opposite reaction.

    In physics it is just like in politics: laws apply until they don’t.

    The most influential book I ever read in my life was “Zen and the Art of Motor Cycle Maintenance” by Robert M. Pirsig, read during my student years.

    Later I learned that Pirsig had “borrowed” almost everything from Friedrich Nietzsche. I had heated and well-alcoholized discussions with my fellow physics students about the status of laws of physics. According to most of my friends these laws were absolute and “discovered”, but I bought the story of Pirsig/Nietzsche that laws of physics were human inventions and just “handy” and could be replaced by other “laws” if they were even more handy.

    Science is antropomorphic and not juggling with Plato’s Eternal Ideas.

    Dump Newton when his time has come.

  14. Sissyfuss on Sun, 20th Nov 2016 12:52 pm 

    Well, well, Clogs. Loved the book and endeavored to be a Nietzsche “Superman” until age said forget it.

  15. dissident on Sun, 20th Nov 2016 2:21 pm 

    Calm down people. Nobody is talking about saving humanity’s sorry a** with this discovery or rather confirmation of the pilot wave interpretation of quantum mechanics.

    There is no violation of any of Newton’s laws. The quantum foam has to be included in the system in order for it to be complete. It is only by ignoring “the texture of space” and space itself that we have some “violation” of physics laws.

    Frankly, this research is not surprising. Nature is coupled and nonlinear. The notion that space is merely a stage for the actors (physics processes) is a BS linear approximation. In reality matter-energy affects space and space affects matter-energy.

    The effect of propulsion on the quantum foam would be the same sort of question what the effect of swimming is on the water. Water does not degrade because some force was exerted on it. So there is no issue of “pollution” in this case. On the other hand the current chemical rockets are spewing pollution in large amounts.

  16. peakyeast on Sun, 20th Nov 2016 4:56 pm 

    @cloggie: Yeah I also read the Zen book some 30 years ago.

    But I liked this one better: The Tao of Pooh – Benjamin Hoff and the Sequel with the Piglet.

    I havent heard it, but it seems like it is free as an audiobook here:

  17. Apneaman on Sun, 20th Nov 2016 5:18 pm 

    Is Physical Law an Alien Intelligence?

    Alien life could be so advanced it becomes indistinguishable from physics.

    “In that case, dark matter could contain real complexity, and perhaps it is where all technologically advanced life ends up or where most life has always been. What better way to escape the nasty vagaries of supernova and gamma-ray bursts than to adopt a form that is immune to electromagnetic radiation? Upload your world to the huge amount of real estate on the dark side and be done with it.”

  18. Apneaman on Sun, 20th Nov 2016 5:57 pm 

    Here Are The Signs That A Civilization Is About To Collapse

    “November 18, 2016 — 2:30 PM PST
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    All great civilizations eventually collapse. It’s inevitable. So what are the signs of their demise? On the latest edition of Odd Lots, we speak with Arthur Demarest, a professor at Vanderbilt University who specializes in the end of civilization. Demarest is an anthropologist and archaeologist who’s most well known for his work on the Mayans. He tells us about his work, what he’s learned — and what we should be watching out for today.

    Bloomberg Radio”

  19. Anonymous on Sun, 20th Nov 2016 7:53 pm 

    Does this mean well finally have an efficient means of propelling Elon Musk off our planet for good? If this drive can help rid us of him once and for all, then I say, give it all the funding it needs…

  20. ERR. on Wed, 23rd Nov 2016 11:50 am 

    Look carefully at the picture:
    This is not a serious design.
    This is shoddy construction of the artist – a fraud.
    It is a twisted cheesy screws.

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