NASA’s Space Drive Experiments: The Plot Thickens

A research group called the Eagleworks at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas is tasked with investigating novel space propulsion techniques. These include both warp drive concepts to enable faster than light travel and reactionless drive schemes where electric power is converted directly into thrust. If proven, these concepts would violate major laws of physics.


Could NASA research mean day trips to the Moon? (Image credit: NASA)

Could NASA research mean day trips to the Moon? (Image credit: NASA)


In a paper last year the Eagleworks team reported that they had tested sealed boxes containing microwave sources (as a shorthand I will refer to these as EM drives) and measured incredibly small thrusts from them. I read their paper and sadly had severe misgivings. My doubts were raised (among other reasons) because

The paper reports the EM drives were tested in a vacuum chamber which described in detail yet the authors fail clearly to spell out that the chamber was not operating during the tests (the experiment was NOT performed in a vacuum).

The paper suggests that the EM drives push against a medium it calls the “quantum vacuum virtual plasma”, an entity which is not known to science.

The experimental report is padded out with elaborate mission profiles of space missions to Mars and the moons of Saturn that would be possible if the EM drives can be successfully scaled up. Even if the reported thrusts are genuinely a new phenomenon, this really seems like planning a transatlantic air flight based on a successful test of a paper plane.

The researchers have continued to test this concept and reported measuring higher thrusts and to have demonstrated the EM drives operating in a vacuum. These intriguing developments are reported in the article Evaluating NASA’s Futuristic EM Drive. (Note that is not an official NASA website.) The vacuum test results disproves the possibility that a heating effect was generating convectional air currents and giving a spurious result.

Immediately after reporting on these test results the authors spend more than a third of the article discussing hypothetical applications of EM drive technology to space vehicles. They describe concepts including boosting the ISS, “WarpStar-1” a spaceplane capable of travelling between the Earth’s surface and the Moon in four hours “carrying two to six passengers and luggage “, the human missions to Mars and Saturn again and the possibility of sending a probe to Alpha Centauri. Using the specifications for the Mars mission suggests that an EM Drive violates another fundamental physical law, that of conservation of energy. The Mars spacecraft can apparently gain more kinetic energy than its nuclear reactor puts out!

The article discusses how the researchers believe the EM drive generates thrust through a “three-dimensional magnetohydrodynamic flow of electron-positron virtual particles” and notes that this is not accepted by the “mainstream physics community”, a somewhat passive-aggressive term I am more used to hearing from promoters of psychic powers, perpetual motion machines and similar crankery. For that matter the inventor of the EM drive concept, Briton Roger Shawyer, has a completely different (but just as dubious) theory which he used to create his prototypes!

Then the paper reports a stranger still experimental result.

Previously the Eagleworks team has investigated the possibility of warping space-time on a microscopic scale with an electrically charged ceramic ring (leading to reports that NASA was building a starship) . An interferometer was used to try to see if this warping distorted the path of a laser beam passing through it, this experiment did not yield any convincing reports. Originally this seemed to be an entirely separate field of research from the EM drive investigation, but now the Eagleworks scientists are reporting that their interferometer has detected distortions in space inside an operating EM drive. A laser beam projected through the EM drive appear take more time than expected to cross the cavity, just as though space inside it was distorted (contrary to some reporting, the laser beam did not move faster than the normal speed of light).

If this interferometer measurement is correct, the Eagleworks have proved that an EM drive both functions as a reactionless drive to propel itself through space (violating conservation of momentum and energy) and generates a field possibly allowing faster than light communication or even FTL travel (violating special relativity)!

I urge anyone interested in this to read the NASAspaceflight article for themselves, it is clearly written and fascinating. However, as you read the article think about these points.

  •   If the Eagleworks team are confident that they are observing real effects, why are these astonishing results not being published in a peer-reviewed journal?
  •   Why is so much space in a relatively short article given over to such detailed speculation on future possibilities?
  •   Why does another NASA centre seem unconvinced?
  •   If this is correct, one small team has rewritten the laws of physics and brought a couple of science fiction dreams substantially closer to reality. Is all this not just a little too good to be true?
  •  Would this be taken as seriously if it came from a UFO enthusiast or an inventor working in his garage rather than NASA employees?

The quantum vacuum virtual plasma described by the Eagleworks team is a universal medium with mechanical properties which the EM drive “pushes” against and accelerates with respect to. This sounds like a reinvention of the luminiferous aether and suggests they believe a preferred reference frame exists. Does this mean they believe in an non-Einsteinian model of the Universe? (If this is correct EM Drive devices’ performance would vary throughout the year as the Earth moved with respect to the quantum vacuum virtual plasma!)

I would love my misgivings to be unfounded as, if the claims in the article are correct, it means NASA has given humanity to the keys to the Solar System, if not the Universe. Yet I am still completely unconvinced by the quality of evidence offered. EM Drive effects are, in my opinion, as real as CERN’s faster than light neutrino measurements.

UPDATE: In July 2015 researchers in Germany reported further inconclusive tests on a EMdrive style device. Although some excited reports have claimed this proves the device’s validity, the authors claim their test do not confirm or refute this.

(Article by Colin Johnston, Science Education Director)