NASA has announced that an experimental propulsion system that needs only energy from sunlight appears to produce sufficient thrust to power spacecraft. This means that, once a spacecraft is in orbit, it will be able to accelerate away from the earth to the edges of the solar system, without fuel. This means that travel throughout the solar system is going to become much more possible and far cheaper.
Researchers at the Johnson Space Center in Houston have determined that a microwave thruster system that requires no propellant generates a small but useful amount of thrust. In a paper published by the Eagleworks Laboratories, Nasa engineers confirmed that they had produced tiny amounts of thrust from an engine without fuel. This would appear to be a violation of the law of conservation of momentum, but the fact remains that the thrust is there.
The engine has been named the ‘Cannae Drive’ by engineer Guido Fetta. It uses electricity to generate microwaves, bouncing them around inside a specially designed container that creates a difference in radiation pressure and so results in directional thrust. The engine is named after the Battle of Cannae, in which an improbably small Carthaginian force defeated a much larger Roman army
This is not the only such engine. Chinese engineers have created one called the EmDrive, which works on the same principle and reportedly produces a thousand times the thrust of NASA’s design. The EmDrive was designed by Roger Shawyer, a British scientist.
According to NASA, "test results indicate that the RF resonant cavity thruster design, which is unique as an electric propulsion device, is producing a force that is not attributable to any classical electromagnetic phenomenon and therefore is potentially demonstrating an interaction with the quantum vacuum virtual plasma."
So it appears that the laws of physics are being demonstrably violated–which means only one thing: they aren’t complete. Once this effect is fully understood, it could lead to further extraordinary advances as yet to be imagined.
If the system works as expected, it could reduce the amount of time needed to reach Mars to weeks, and could propel a spacecraft to our nearest stellar neighbor (Proxima Centauri) in about thirty years.