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Never say never: NASA’s ‘impossible’ EM Drive shows promise in tests by German scientists

Editor’s note [07/30/2015]: The original headline of this story has been clarified to reflect the fact that Shawyer’s paper has not yet passed peer review.

“Impossible? Things are happening every day.” That may have just be a line from a Cinderella movie — until now, as a team of German scientists claims to have measured thrust from an electromagnetic propulsion drive, or EM Drive, an engine previously thought to be “scientifically impossible.”

Thanks to the apparent confirmation of the scientific validity of the EM Drive, the research of British scientist Roger Shawyer has now been accepted by the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) and published in Acta Astronautica. This may just be the most exciting publication in terms of space travel in ages, given that the engine supposedly makes the trip to Mars last just 70 days, and all without the tons and tons of fuel that would normally be required for such a strenuous journey. Instead, the entirety of the EM drive is powered by microwaves, a controversial claim that was previously dubbed ridiculous, but is now gaining credence in the scientific community.

Initially, the idea was dismissed as absurd because the microwave technology violates a fundamental law of physics — that every action must have an equal and opposite reaction. But now, a few new studies, including the one addressed in a paper titled, “Direct Thrust Measurements of an EM Drive and Evaluation of Possible Side-Effects,” have produced results that make Shawyer’s claims seem more and more plausible.

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While nothing has yet been completely confirmed, scientists believe that such promising results may unlock incredible potential for the future. As Martin Tajmar, researcher at the Dresden University of Technology in Germany, noted in explaining his own results, “Our test campaign cannot confirm or refute the claims of the EM Drive but intends to independently assess possible side-effects in the measurements [sic] methods used so far. Nevertheless, we do observe thrust close to the actual predictions after eliminating many possible error sources that should warrant further investigation into the phenomena.”

Of course, not all scientists are completely sold on the idea, and indeed, some remain entirely dismissive of the validity of such technology. Physicist Sean Carroll of CalTech called the EM Drive concept a “complete crap and waste of time,” whereas Eric Davis, a physicist at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Austin pointed out that considerable room for error remained in Tajmar’s research that supposedly supported Shawyer’s results.

So the jury’s still out on this one, but for anyone looking to go to Mars in a jiffy, keep your fingers crossed. This one may just work.