Breaking Newton’s Laws: The Electromagnetic Drive

Kelton Holsen, Features Editor

Newton’s third law is one of the most fundamental rules of physics: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In other words, you can’t make the boat go faster by blowing on the sail. Yet a scientist in the U.K. has, since 2001, been attempting to convince people of his new design for an engine that does just that. Called the RF resonant cavity thruster, or more formally the electromagnetic drive, this device, if it works, would produce enough thrust to get us “to Mars in 10 weeks” without the production of any exhaust, according to “ScienceAlert.”
The confusing thing about the electromagnetic drive isn’t the theory behind it — apart from the bit where it breaks the most fundamental laws of physics, it’s rather sound. The confusing thing is that several tests claim to have created models that work. NASA Spaceflight reports that Chinese scientist Juan Yang claims to have tested a model of the drive that produced tangible results. Other testing has also been performed by NASA and found positive results according to “Popular Mechanics.” It’s hard to say whether the thrust observed in the experiments was due to the drive working or some sort of experimental error.
The way that the drive is supposed to work, according to “Popular Mechanics,” is that microwaves are directed into a cone-shaped tube and allowed to bounce around. Since the edges of the drive are angled, this pushes the drive forward. However, this shouldn’t work; it’s described as being “like trying to make a car to go forward by sitting in the driver seat and pushing on the windshield.” Yet NASA’s testing discovered that the drive was “about as efficient as the ion drives already used by most long-range spacecraft.”
Although the drive has not yet been implemented anywhere, there are rumors that the U.S. or Chinese governments intend to bring the drive into space to test it in a vacuum environment. If the drive is proven to work, then not only will it revolutionize space travel, but it will also make us question some of the things we know about physics — or whether there are some crucial things that we don’t. Until then, though, we still have to follow Newton’s Laws.

This article first appeared in the Friday, February 2, 2018, Edition of The Echo.