Scientists in China claim they’ve created a working prototype of the ‘impossible’ reactionless engine – and they say they’re already testing it in orbit aboard the Tiangong-2 space laboratory.
The radical, fuel-free EmDrive recently stirred up controversy after a paper published by a team of NASA researchers appeared to show they’d successfully built the technology.
If the physics-defying concept is brought to reality, it’s said the engine could get humans to Mars in just 10 weeks.
But now, scientists with the China Academy of Space Technology claim NASA’s results ‘re-confirm’ what they’d already achieved, and have plans to implement it in satellites ‘as quickly as possible.’
With no fuel to eject, the EmDrive would violate Newton’s third law, which states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
At a press conference in Beijing, however, researchers with Cast confirmed the government has been funding research into the technology since 2010, and claimed they’ve developed a device that’s already being tested in low-Earth orbit, IBTimes UK reports.
It comes just a month after anonymous sources told IBTimes UK that tests on the EmDrive were underway aboard Tiangong-2.
‘National research institutions in recent years have carried out a series of long-term, repeated tests on the EmDrive,’ Dr Chen Yue, head of the communication satellite division at Cast said at the press conference, IBTimes UK reports.
‘NASA’s published test results can be said to re-confirm the technology. We have successfully developed several specifications of multiple prototype principles.
‘The establishment of an experimental verification platform to complete the milli-level micro thrust measurement test, as well as several years of repeated experiments and investigations into corresponding interference factors, confirm that in this type of thruster, thrust exists.’
Cast is a subsidiary of the Chinese Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) and the manufacturer of Dong Fang Hong satellites.
According to Li Feng, chief designer of Cast’s communication satellite division, the team has built a prototype that so far generates just a few millinewtons of thrust, IBTimes UK reports.
For it to work on a satellite, they will need to bring the levels up to something between .1-1 Newtons.
This means they will have to improve the cavity design to reduce electrical losses, and develop a solution for the placement of the microwave thruster on the satellite itself.
‘This technology is currently in the latter stages of the proof-of-principle phase, with the goal of making the technology available in satellite engineering as quickly as possible,’ Li Feng said at the conference, IBTimes reports.
‘Although it is difficult to do this, we have the confidence that we will succeed.’
Following the official publication of the NASA research last month, many have dismissed the results as an experimental error.
This includes advanced propulsions systems expert Brice Cassenti, who says there is likely a ‘mundane explanation’ behind the findings.
But, while the expert argues that there’s a ‘slim’ probability that the results will hold up in further investigation, he also notes that ‘it’s not zero.’
The violations seen in the EmDrive concept would ‘invalidate much of the basis for all of physics as we know it,’ Cassenti, an engineering professor at the University of Connecticut, told UConn Today.
The paper, now published in the AIAA’s Journal of Propulsion and Power, describes a series of successful tests carried out by scientists at NASA’s Eagleworks Laboratories.
Its publication means it has been reviewed by scientists independent to the study, adding to its credibility – but, this does not necessarily mean that the results are valid.
As there is no ‘plausible proven physical explanation’ for the findings as of yet, either experimentally or theoretically, the expert says the results may boil down to an experimental error.
‘I personally believe that there is a mundane explanation for the results,’ Cassenti said.
‘For example, electric currents are heating components within the Drive that expand during the experiments, causing motion that would appear as a force.
‘It is very difficult to remove such effects, although the authors of the journal article tried to remove not only these thermal effects but also many other possible sources for experimental errors.’
According to Cassenti, it’s extremely difficult to be certain that all sources of error have been eliminated, and this can only be proven through independent tests of the hypothesis.
If the EmDrive results do turn out to be valid, the achievement ‘points to new physics.’
And while there have been circumstances where Newton’s laws have been found not to apply at high speeds, as in large gravitational fields and with tiny molecules, the researcher note that ‘Newton is still mostly right.’
‘Over my professional life, I have seen several of these exciting experimental or theoretical results reported in peer-reviewed literature,’ Cassenti said.
‘So far only the reality of black holes has come through.
‘So, based on my experience, the probability of this holding up under further analysis and testing appears slim. But it’s not zero.’
Essentially, the EmDrive generates thrust by harnessing particles of light and bouncing microwaves around inside a closed chamber, shaped like a cone.
The movement generates thrust at the slim end of the cone, which drives the engine forward.
In the new study, which tested if the device could operate in a vacuum, the researchers found that ‘thrust data from forward, reverse, and null suggested that the system was consistently performing at 1.2±0.1 mN/kW1.2±0.1 mN/kW, which was very close to the average impulsive performance measured in air.’
The supporting physics model for these conditions, according to the researchers, could be a ‘nonlocal hidden-variable theory, or pilot-wave theory for short’ – an interpretation of quantum mechanics.
Many have taken interest in the findings, including one physicist who has claimed that there ‘may really be something’ in the findings – but, the cause might be something entirely different than what’s been proposed.
Rather than the quantum vacuum theory which was initially cited in the leaked version to explain the findings, a phenomenon known as the ‘Mach effect’ could be to blame, according to Motherboard.
By this effect, which Woodward first theorized in the 1990s, some of the force applied to an accelerating body of mass is stored as potential energy in its body rather than generating kinetic energy, according to Motherboard.
This causes fluctuations in the object’s resting mass, and this effect could be harnessed to create the type of thrust seen in the experiments.