Space Drives: Experiments & Theories

Eagleworks, the Johnson Space Center shoe-string “advanced propulsion lab” is now notorious for testing the theoretically impossible “EM-Drive”, the related Cannae Q-Drive, and several other propellantless propulsion devices. What’s more, their chief scientist Harold “Sonny” White has a theory of ‘Quantum Vacuum Plasma Propulsion” that’s has raised the ire of more orthodox physicists, because it posits that the quantum vacuum – the sea of virtual particles created by the various fields composing our world – can be used for ‘jet propulsion’, or distorted to produce propulsive effects.

The latest burst of hype – and this is not the first, as a bit of Googling will tell the reader – comes from the considered, measured bit of reportage that summarises the several year long discussion of the Q-Drive work by Paul March (aka Star-Drive) on the NASA Spaceflight Forum. Paul is the consulting engineer for Eagleworks and has long worked on speculative propulsion systems. He shares results and discusses well meant criticism of the Q-Drive/EM-Drive effort. Here’s the NSF News Summary:

Evaluating NASA’s Futuristic EM Drive (29 April 2015)

One of the co-authors is Dr Jose Rodal, who has worked indefatigably to refine the experimental testing by the Eagleworks crew and eliminate the (many) possible false-positives that might mimick thrust from a drive. While the reportage by the NSF team and Dr Rodal is measured and cautious, sadly the Nerdi-Verse has exploded with both incautious Boosters and dogmatic Nay-Sayers shouting and yelling about the concept, but neglecting to look at the facts, as presented on NSF over a considerable period of time.

Brian Wang’s Next Big Future has reported on the EM-Drive/Q-Drive effort for years and the forum arguments there have raged as well, with the well-meant sceptics led by GoatGuy, whose physics knowledge and clear writing is very welcome in an often fractious, noisy forum. This little post was the possible vanguard of the current Hype-Storm:

Magnetron powered EM-drive construction expected to take two months …in which the EM-Drive, with Sonny White’s computations, might produce 1250 newtons thrust from 100 kW of microwave power.

The basic device which has most recently produced positive results, in vacuum chamber tests, is based on Roger Shawyer’s EM-Drive, an earlier and equally controversial propellantless propulsion system. What particularly irks orthodox physicists (and mathematical physicists, like Greg Egan) is Shawyer’s claim that his EM-Drive works in a way that obeys relativity. That it violates conservation of momentum while doing so immediately hinted that Shawyer’s mathematical treatment of his concept was incomplete – as Greg Egan was quick to point out.

Unfortunately for Shawyer’s critics, positive results from his experiments, a Chinese team, and now Eagleworks, suggests that something is missing in our current best theoretical understanding of how the world works. But what? I made this comment recently on Facebook:

It’s arguable whether it could be called a “hyper-space drive”, but it’s not a bad title. Here’s why: currently Sonny’s warp-drive concept requires the existence of the 5th dimension aka “Hyper-space” to work. If the Q-Drive/EM-Drive thingie is also confirmed, and is genetically related to the warp-drive, then it too probably works by some sort of 5-D effect. It almost certainly doesn’t work via the dubious physics that Shawyer has invoked. The recent interferometer test which has produced data *suggestive* of a space-warp being generated via the modified Q-Drive rig would not work if plain vanilla General Relativity is 100% correct. There’s just not enough energy density in the test device to warp space in an observable way. To produce a warp – as Sonny has said all along – requires the *existence* of Hyper-space. IFF the warp really is a warp, and not experimental noise, then it’s evidence of Hyper-space. In some ways that’s an even more incredible experimental outcome than some minor “violation” of action-reaction laws.

…which I will expand on in the sequel to this post. Before we go there, let’s look at the landscape of “advanced propulsion”, with some annotated links:

Roger Shawyer’s EM-Drive site: SPR Ltd

    Shawyer has written numerous papers over the last decade or so, and has had professionally translated the Chinese work that reported replication of his EM-Drive. Exactly what the Chinese space establishment make of this replication no one presently knows.

Mike McCulloch’s Physics from the Edge

Mike is a radical physicist with a theory of inertia, based on the Unruh effect, which might explain the EM-Drive’s positive results, as well as Dark Matter, Dark Energy and other cosmological mysteries. His EM-Drive paper is here: Can the EM-Drive be Explained by Quantised Inertia?

Eagleworks Lab is represented by a series of papers, some available on the NASA web-site:

Eagleworks Laboratories: Advanced Propulsion Physics Research (2011)

Warp Field Mechanics 101 (2011) – This paper was presented at the 2011 100 Year Star-Ship at Orlando Florida, which I presented at as well.

Warp Field Mechanics 102: Energy Optimization – This one was presented by Harold White at the 2013 Starship Congress, organised by Icarus Interstellar. Sonny proposes (highly speculative) ways that an actual warp-drive could be created for very “low” negative energy amounts.

After this rather abstract paper I personally felt Sonny’s warp-concepts were interesting, but for the distant future. However another conference piece changed my mind. More soon. First, this now famous essay…

Anomalous Thrust Production from an RF Test Device Measured on a Low-Thrust Torsion Pendulum
An abstract for this paper, now liberated from an AIAA Pay-per-view. Confusingly, when this one first exploded into the Nerdi-Verse, only the abstract was reported on, causing many sceptics of the Drives to (incorrectly) assert that the tests had failed. What the tests had failed to do was be conducted in a vacuum chamber under vacuum conditions, which meant more attentive critics had reason for scepticism.

What hadn’t hit public consciousness, but hit me was an earlier conference paper on Sonny’s Q-Drive concept, based on old experimental work by Paul March on Jim Woodward’s Mach Effect Thruster (MET). I won’t discuss the MET here, as it’s a whole other effort with a different theoretical basis, but genetically the MET experimental effort is what brought engineer Paul March into advanced propulsion, and finally working for Eagleworks.

Here’s the conference paper: Advanced Propulsion Physics: Harnessing the Quantum Vacuum ,which exploded in my mind with the rather glorious prospect of flying to the Outer Planets in days, rather than years. Except the numbers didn’t quite work, as I mentioned to both Paul and Sonny at the time.

Some of Sonny’s earlier papers are linked at this early Crowlspace post: White Papers

At one point in time he worked with Eric Davis, uber advanced-propulsion guru, on the higher-dimensional aspects of the original warp-drive: The Alcubierre Warp Drive in Higher Dimensional Spacetime

Other theories of how the EM-Drive, or the related Cannae Q-Drive, might work have appeared since the current buzz began a couple of years ago. Fernando Minotti, an Argentinian physicist, has suggested one theoretical option using Scalar-Tensor theory, which is a mathematical alternative to General Relativity. In most physics tests, the two theories give identical results, but not all tests – the EM-Drive, and kin, might be one such example: Scalar-tensor theories and asymmetric resonant cavities

Minotti has pointed out a particular Scalar-Tensor theory of gravitation, developed by Jean Paul Mbelek, as the relevant theoretical basis. His work is represented on the arXiv here: Mbelek, Jean Paul

A more recent theoretical discussion has also appeared on the arXiv here: DEF: The Physical Basis of Electromagnetic Propulsion by Mario J. Pinheiro. Exactly what might come of his discussion is hard to judge. Only more experimental data can adequately guide us through so many theoretical choices.

One thought on “Space Drives: Experiments & Theories

  1. Adam, a good job explaining the state of play on a very complicated playing field.

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