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EM drive: New twist in ‘impossible engine’ experiments

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THE idea just won’t go away. A space thruster that … simply thrusts. There’s no fuel. Just a microwave reaction chamber. It’s against the laws of physics. But does it work?

It’s an experiment that has been bouncing around over the past two decades.

Take one copper cone. Put it in a vacuum. Apply microwaves. Measure the thrust.

China has built one. Even NASA has given it a go. They admit they measured … something. But they’re not sure if it's a glitch in their methodology — or real thrust.

Now a group of German physicists are giving it a go.

They told a meeting of the Aeronautics and Astronautics Association in France earlier this month that they’re examining new technologies that will — hopefully — make interstellar travel possible.

That’s a big goal.

Only one of our spacecraft has crossed into interstellar space: Voyager 1. Coasting at 65,000km/h, it will take 80,000 years to reach our nearest neighbour, Alpha Centauri — if it was headed in that direction.

But what if it was still capable of producing thrust? It would still be accelerating. Getting faster. And faster.

Doing that, however, would require an enormous source of propellant. One in a reaction chamber, this ‘explodes’ to create the force which — when ejected from an exhaust port — provides thrust. Once it’s used up — no more acceleration. Speed stays the same, except for the odd slingshot effect from the gravity wells of nearby worlds.

But what if your spacecraft didn’t need to carry fuel?

If the ‘impossible’ engine really did work, it would revolutionise space travel.
But … it’s impossible.

It appears to violate the law of conservation of momentum: for every action, there must be an equal and opposite reaction. This experiment says you can move your car … by sitting in the driver’s seat and pushing at the window.

Try it. It won’t work.

So is there some as-yet undiscovered interaction within this seemingly simple device that somehow pulls propellant out of the fabric of space-time itself?

Or did someone simply make a mistake, somewhere?

The German researchers want to rule it in — or out — once and for all.

They developed a new measuring system to determine if there really is thrust coming out of an EM drive, or it’s the result of some as-yet undiscovered anomaly distorting their readings.

The Germans report they set up their sensors, and applied power to their EM drive.

The pumped in about 2 watts. The EmDrive registered about 4 micro-Newtons of thrust.

Then the Germans changed the direction the drive was facing.

They pumped in 2 watts. The EmDrive registered 4 micro-Newtons.

But the direction of the thrust did not change.

“This clearly indicates that the ‘thrust’ is not coming from the EmDrive, but some electromagnetic interaction,” the researchers wrote. “Although we used twisted or coaxial cables as much as possible, some magnetic fields will eventually leak through our cables and connectors.”

They’ve not given up entirely yet. They plan to further mask the device from any unwanted external magnetic fields.

Once switched on again, hopefully we’ll know: Does the EmDrive really produce something from nothing?

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