To the stars through hardship

This past month, scientists at NASA may have made some astonishing breakthroughs in advanced propulsion technology.  All revolutions in science seem to go through stages of acceptance: at first ridicule, then skepticism, and finally an impression that the revolution had been self-evident all along.

Since the Moon landing of 1969, a budget-strapped NASA appears to think that conventional, low-thrust chemical rockets are an immutable fact of nature and human destiny, never to be supplanted by more advanced systems.

A small, renegade outfit in NASA, led by Dr. Harold "Sunny" White and called Eagleworks, believes that Americans can do better and might ultimately fly to the stars.  He's been testing an electromagnetic space propulsion system called the "EmDrive," which uses no thrust propellant or fuel of any kind – only electricity.  Basically, the engine converts electricity (from solar panels or some other source) to microwaves, which bounce against an interior set of walls, causing momentum in the opposite direction.  The acceleration is constant.

Nobody believed it possible to create thrust-less forward movement in a vacuum (such as the vacuum of space) but a few days ago, Eagleworks appeared to have done just that.  Using only 30 Watts of electricity, White's team excited the microwaves to 1.48 Gigahertz and, over time, averaged out a signal frequency of 0.65 Hz over and above system noise.  Current physics says that this shouldn't happen: you can't move your car forward by sitting inside and pushing on the steering wheel.  But Eagleworks made it happen, apparently by exciting forces at the quantum level, though nobody is sure exactly how.

But this was only a proof of concept.  Do the math, and when you soup up the engine, according to Dr. White, even the outer planets become within reach of manned space missions.  With only 70 days' transit to Mars utilizing this drive, most of the human dangers of long spaceflight, such as cosmic ray exposure, fade off.  A transit to Saturn (and back again) would take only nine months each way.

The EmDrive was originally dreamed up by a British scientist, Roger Shawyer, who certainly was ridiculed for years by his fellow scientists.  "They did make life difficult for me for a while. ... The space industry doesn't want to know about it as it's very disruptive," he told the IB Times U.K.  Sunny White is also routinely mocked.  Physicist Sean Carroll tweeted that White's EmDrive explanation was "nonsensical sub-Star-Trek level technobabble."  But so far, no one has falsified the repeated NASA experiments.

Something else happened on the way to the [online] Forum, something rich and strange. Eagleworks' EmDrive experiments may indeed have accidentally proved that faster-than-light travel is possible.

When lasers were fired into the EmDrive's resonance chamber, some of the laser beams appeared to travel faster than the speed of light, which would mean the EmDrive could have produced a warp bubble – a tiny bend or tear in the fabric of space and time.

A warp bubble, produced with relatively low energies, would possibly mean that the 1994 calculations of Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre for a Star Trek-style engine that would propel a ship faster than light could become feasible.  Of course, the ship wouldn't truly fly faster than light, but would instead create a warp bubble around the spacecraft, expanding in front of the craft and contracting behind it.

The old Latin motto, Ad astra per aspera, will always apply.  But the first step in getting out of low-Earth orbit is to imagine that you can leave it.  Alcubierre, Shawyer, and White have dared to dream.

Christopher S. Carson, formerly of the American Enterprise Institute, holds a master's in national security studies from Georgetown University.