Despite having basically supercomputers in our pockets, cars that nearly drive themselves and being just a few years from robots doing almost all manual labor, getting into space is still very difficult and very expensive. However, that may change in our lifetime. According to a paper by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the EmDrive works. NASA’s paper on their testing has been peer-reviewed and approved. They measured true thrust, albeit very minimal. Of course This tech is at is barely in its first stages of infancy.
Side note: I’m working on the assumption you know what the EmDrive is. If not, here’s the quick rundown. It’s a new type of engine that was developed by a British engineer that does not use fuel in the traditional sense (rocket fuel, kerosene, gas, hydrogen) or a propellant (ionized gas in the case of an ion drive). Put simply, you put electricity into it and it pushes thrust out the back end.
But what does this mean? What kind of future are we looking at if the EmDrive takes is developed to the level Roger Shawyer, the drive’s inventor, believes?
In order to answer that, I think we need to take a look at what the EmDrive itself is and what it isn’t. There’s a lot of different phrases being used to describe the drive, including “reactionless drive,” “warp drive,” “impossible drive,” and the drive that breaks the laws of physics. Shawyer himself gives a pretty good, if not slightly sleepy, interview and addresses these labels. Here’s the tl;dr version of the interview:
- He says that point blank, the drive is not reactionless. This is based on the misnomer idea that the drive breaks Newton’s Third Law by creating an action without a reaction. The truth is, thrust is created in one direction and the engine is propelled in the other.
- “It’s most certainly not a warp drive.” Words straight out of his mouth. The engine works by creating thrust, not by warping space-time. (Although, there was an experiment using a White-Juday interferometer where they theorized that they were measuring slight variations in path-transition time for lasers fired into an EmDrive resonance chamber, indicating a bending of space in the resonance chamber. That experiment, I believe, is not part of NASA’s paper.)
- It’s not “impossible.” First off, of course it’s not, because it works. Second, and this goes into the next rebuttal, it doesn’t do anything it’s not supposed to.
- It does not break the laws of physics. This is a reference to the idea that it breaks physics in reference to the conservation of energy laws. But this is not true. In fact, it is only converting energy from one state (electrical) into another (kinetic).
I won’t pretend to completely understand the physics of it. I get some of the ideas. You pump energy in the form of electromagnetic waves into a specially shaped chamber, the waves bounce around a bit, and because of the orientation of the walls and how they interact with the luminal velocity of the waves, a tiny amount of thrust is created.
Basically, we’re not talking about something like a repulsorlift from Star Wars. That fictional tech “works” by actually reacting against a planet’s gravity. Rather, this is like a regular thruster that does not have a massive plume of fire and plasma coming out after it. I’m not entirely sure if you could stand right beside the “output” of the engine, though. There could be microwaves or something else harmful in the immediate vicinity. Shawyer never goes into that specifically.
What he does say, though, is that if EmDrive technology evolves anywhere near where he expects, it could completely revolutionize transportation. It could, in fact, give us flying Jetsons-like cars. So, yes, that scene from The Fifth Element where cars are streaming along between the high-rises, or from the Star Wars prequels with lines of vehicles in an air-traffic jam, could become a reality.
In addition, it could make transportation to space MUCH easier. Part of our problem with getting into space is the speed we have to go directly vertical. Instead, we could have space planes that can have vertical takeoff and fly like a regular plane out of the atmosphere. This could, again theoretically, cut the cost of putting stuff into space down by a factor of 130. That’s not big, that’s FREAKING HUGE!
Of course, I’m not taking everything Shawyer says as gospel. I mean, so far it’s looking pretty good. But I’m staying cautiously optimistic. It may be that the technology does not improve nearly as much as Shawyer thinks. It may be that there is some aberrant factor creating false thrust. I have no idea. But at this point, I’m hopeful.
I look at it this way… Maybe I’ll get a flying car some day. Better yet, maybe I’ll even get to take a trip to orbit at some point in this lifetime. Until then (and probably after), I’ll just keep writing stories as if those things are just a part of our destined future.