Very quietly, NASA has tested a space drive that does not use propellant and according to the laws of physics should not work, according to a Thursday story in Wired.UK. The problem is that the drive, called the “Cannae Drive” by its inventor Guiddo Fetta, did work in the NASA directed test. If the efficacy of the drive is confirmed, the implications for space travel are profound. It seems that another technology from Star Trek may be about to become reality,.
The Cannae Drive is apparently based on the work of a British scientist named Roger Shawyer called the EMDrive. It is said to work by bouncing microwaves in an enclosed chamber and thus creating thrust. Despite having built a number of demonstration models, Shawyer has not been able to get anyone interested in his device. Critics reject his relativity explanation for how it works and point out that it violates the conservation of motion.
However it appears that the Chinese quietly tested their own version of the EMDrive up to about 72 grams of thrust, enough to be a satellite thruster. The test was not widely reported in the West, possibly because few if any people believed it was possible. That seems to have changed thanks of the test of the Cannae Drive.
The Cannae Drive seems to have been developed independently of the EmDrive, though it seems to have a similar mechanism. The NASA test, which was presented at the 50th Joint Propulsion Conference in Cleveland, Ohio, showed that the Cannae drive was able to produce a thrust of less than one thousandth of the Chinese model. Nevertheless it constitutes a third test of a working propellant-less engine.
What are the physics behind these devices? NASA’s explanation follows:
"Test results indicate that the RF resonant cavity thruster design, which is unique as an electric propulsion device, is producing a force that is not attributable to any classical electromagnetic phenomenon and therefore is potentially demonstrating an interaction with the quantum vacuum virtual plasma."
In other words, no one knows for sure. Wired speculates that the process involves “pushing against the ghostly cloud of particles and anti-particles that are constantly popping into being and disappearing again in empty space.” But finding out for sure and determining whether this kind of drive can be scaled up to something that can propel a spacecraft will be the work of some years.
But what if it does work and can be scaled up? Much of the weight of a spacecraft, whether it is propelled by a chemical rocket, an ion thruster, or nuclear thermal engines consists of fuel. If something like the EMDrive or the Cannae Drive becomes practical, larger spacecraft can be launched into space without the added weight of fuel and because the thrust is low but constant, like an ion rocket, trip times throughout the Solar System suddenly become weeks instead of months.
This is not the warp drive from Star Trek (a different project at NASA.) It does look a lot like impulse power that propelled the USS Enterprise when the warp engines were down. It would be enough to open the solar system for exploration and eventual colonization.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of The Man from Mars: The Asteroid Mining Caper, The Last Moonwalker and Other Stories and the Children of Apollo Trilogy that includes The Space Race Gambit, The Hard Road to the Stars, and The First Woman on the Moon.