Our first class ticket to Mars? – The EM Drive
There was a lot of publicity around the ‘impossible’ engine that could power a spacecraft without any rocket fuel. Not only that, but the flight time to Mars will be cut down to roughly 70 days from the current 150-300. So how does this miraculous engine work?
The basic principle
The EM drive would use radiation pressure, at microwave frequencies in a proposed engine that converts microwave energy into thrust. But very simply the engine is like a microwave oven with a hole for the direction of thrust. The creation of this engine would mean that there is no need for any fuel, providing a much lighter spacecraft with decreased costs.
See a detailed explanation of the engine here.
One of the great barriers of space travel is that everything is just simply too far away. With the extra speed, reduced cost and a more easily manoeuvrable spacecraft; we can have our eyes set on distances just outside our solar system.
So why haven’t we done it yet?
There is still some serious enquiries on where the thrust is actually coming from. With early theories believing that the thrust was simply due to thermal convection. Later test proved this to be true once testing was performed in a “hard-vacuum”. The tests results were posted on the NASA forums.
If we don’t know for sure how the thrust is created, it will be very difficult to utilize the engine. The accuracy that space flight requires will require a scalable engine in terms of thrust.
Research will have to go into powering the engine through space. A useful EM drive for space travel would require a nuclear power plant of 1-100 megawatts. This is possible given the technology we have today, but the expenses limit the research and application of such projects.
How can we use it?
As noted earlier the uses of such an engine are extensive. The applications to orbiting spacecraft can improve spacecraft lifetimes and reduce the cost of maintenance missions such as resupplies. We can look into our current International Space Station and list the applications of such an engine here.
An article posted on nasaspaceflight suggests that the typical communications satellite would be reduced in mass from 3 tons at launch to 1.3 tons at launch. The same article goes on to say that the warpstar-1 equipped with an EM drive can reach the moon within four hours.
Our understanding of our solar system and beyond would benefit greatly from the predicted 9-month travel time to Saturn and it’s very interesting moon Titan. Applications of the EM drive for deep space missions have been looked at in great detail, such missions could include a visit to our solar system’s closest sibling Alpha Centauri.
Will this lead us to the stars? Are there more plausible forms of generating thrust?
The stars do seem to be getting closer.