Justine pointed me in the direction of the EmDrive – a new kind of engine that has recently been shown to have thrust capabilities. The main thing about it is that it does not at least obviously rely on reaction engines i.e. throwing material away. The current excitement is that it has had some positive measured results in static tests in three independent places now. So there is something going on… More details can be found here. For those of you more into the physics of things, check out wikipedia for the principles behind it – or at least the purported principles.
First of all a few of words of caution –
- This has not yet been tested in microgravity, although it would not surprise me if a test mission is being planned as I write this.
- They’re talking about this being based on group velocity – where a wave appears to travel faster through a medium because it is the adding up of many other waves (superposition is the techie term). We’ve seen this in fluid mechanics (think waves travelling along the surface of water here). This has in other areas been shown not to transfer energy and momentum.
- We are dealing with quantum mechanics here where weird things (i.e. things that do not feel logical or sensible) happen.
- They are not absolutely sure why it works.
If this is shown to work in space, then it’ll change science fiction space opera in many ways. Here are some of them…
- Interplanetary travel near stars (there are planets in the middle of nowhere that have no stars to orbit around) becomes a heck of a lot easier because we don’t have to gather physical fuel for the spacecraft (which includes lifting it out of gravity wells like Earth).
- Because these engines are reusable, there will be less debris in space, say in the geostationary orbits around Earth.
- There will be less need for mining minerals, especially copper-based ones
- Interstellar ships can use these drives to accelerate and leave a system, and providing the trajectory can be correctly predicted don’t need to worry about fuel to get to their destination.
The spacescape with the Emdrive is looking very different from what we’ve seen in science fiction… it’s time for the science fiction writers to get going on this what-not-so-if…
On a personal note, I had hoped to have two space-orientated stories published by Loncon3. That’s not going to happen for various reasons beyond mine and anybody else’s control. The interesting thing is that both are still realistic even if the Emdrive technology was implemented. I’m going: “Huh? Why?” Because neither of these stories relied on the reactionary method of propulsion…
But there is one very serious question. Why didn’t the science fiction writers spot this one coming?