When it comes to space exploration, our technology is still very primitive all things considered. There are certainly plenty of plans to improve it, but it seems like we’re still progressing much slower than most of us would like to. Don’t worry though, because things might change very soon and NASA could be the one to take our technology to the next level. As you probably know, our current tech doesn’t allow us to travel very far into the vastness of space, with our fastest spacecraft ever build just now approaching Pluto after a voyage of almost 10 years. A lot of people (scientists and laymen alike) speculate that we would require something like a warp drive to be able to travel to the closest stars and as it happens, NASA may have just taken the first steps that would allow scientists and engineers to build one.
Back in 2000, several years before New Horizons was launching towards Pluto, aerospace engineer Roger J. Shawye came up with the idea for an EM Drive, a new theoretical propulsion system aimed at revolutionizing space travel as we know it. The biggest problems we currently have are that our spacecraft are simply unable to travel fast enough and our energy sources are completely inefficient. The EM Drive was meant to be the solution to these problems, but unfortunately the scientific community looked down upon the project because it seemed to violate an important law of physics, the law of conservation of momentum. NASA may not have been too interested in the project at first, but they eventually decided to give it a shot and eventually even built a prototype of the EM Drive some time ago.
Believe it or not, the gamble apparently payed off because now it seems like NASA managed two great feats by experimenting with this concept. Some of this information may or may not be reliable, but over on the NASA Spaceflight forums there are many people talking about how a new EM Drive prototype is able to generate thrust with the help of microwaves. As intriguing as this sounds, the real story here is that NASA learned that lasers fired through the device’s resonance chamber are behaving in very unexpected ways. Specifically, some of the laser beams seemed to be moving faster than the speed of light, which is not something that you see every day. In fact, you never see that because the consensus is that nothing can move faster than the speed of light. So, what’s happening here and what does this have to do with the aforementioned warp drive and space exploration?
Well, a while ago science arrived at the conclusion that light sets the “universal speed limit”, a notion that was enforced by Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity and rarely contested until now. In order to make sure that the EM Drive really does what it appears to be doing, the experiment needs to be replicated in a vacuum, so we’ll have to wait until that happens to find out if Einstein was wrong or not. As for why the laser beams can presumably travel faster than light, people from NASA believe that the EM Drive is creating a warp bubble, which is basically a distortion of spacetime. In theory, the only way something could travel faster than the speed of light is by taking shortcut through spacetime and that’s what the laser beams inside the EM Drive’s resonance chamber seem to be doing.
This isn’t the first time we’ve heard about something like this as other concepts like the Alcubierre drive – or indeed, the warp drive from Star Trek – follow a similar principle. This is however, the first time that theory has been transformed into practice and offered some measurable results. As mentioned, further tests need to be conducted in order to verify these claims, but the idea itself definitely sounds very exciting. If NASA does learn how to create a propulsion system that makes use of the warp bubble, then it will surely revolutionize space exploration as we know it. However, the space agency would still need to create a huge warp drive because an actual spacecraft is unlikely to go anywhere with the current prototypes. What we can say for certain right now is that ideas for technologies such as these are finally being taken seriously by many scientists, and top experts are working on them as we speak. You can check out the history and current progress of NASA’s EM Drive here.