After decades of arguments, experiments, claims and counter-claims, a small satellite is preparing to activate a propellentless drive in space for the first time. The quantum drive will boost the BARRY-1 satellite into a new orbit — or maybe it will do nothing, as skeptics maintain propellentless drives cannot work. If it works the drive will revolutionize the space industry and much else. And whether the test succeeds or fails, other groups are preparing their own orbital propellentless drive tests.
The BARRY-1 cubesat, made by tech company IVO Limited, was one of 90 tiny satellites lofted into orbit by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 on November 11th. For the first month or so of operation it will do nothing but settle down so its exact orbit can be tracked – ‘outgassing’ from components and other effects can cause minute variations. After that the drive will be activated and the test will begin with the goal of raising the orbit by 60 miles / 100 kilometers.
“It will take more than one space mission,” Mike McCulloch, who developed the theory behind the new drive, told Forbes. “Four positive lab tests [by separate laboratories] were not enough. Opportunists will notice though, and they get things done.”
Roger Shawyer, who developed the original propellentless EmDrive believes that even a make-or-break test will fail to sway doubters.
“There will be a lot of skepticism and this will be amplified by the large vested interests, both commercial and government, who do not want their technology to be challenged, or do not want other parties to adopt the technology,” Shawyer told Forbes.
Science is supposed to be driven by experimental results. But some things, like the ‘impossible’ space drive, are difficult for many physicist to swallow.
How DARPA Challenged Newton
Entrenched resistance to such drives is founded on very well-established physics.
Newton’s laws of motion which say that you can only move forward in space by ejecting exhaust material backward. Once you run out of propellent, you are stuck on a fixed trajectory or orbit.
Spacecraft engines are rated by ‘Delta-V’ , engineering-speak for the total change in velocity they can produce. An engine might be able to produce a little thrust for a long time, like a satellite’s plasma thruster, or a brief, powerful impulse like the booster on a space shuttle.
Satellites typically have electric drives which propel tiny quantities of ionized gas at extreme speeds to give little pulses of thrust. They can make minor changes in their orbit for months or years , for example to counteract drag and maintain their position. But once the propellant eventually runs out, the satellite is finished. This is why up to half the launch weight of some satellites can be taken up with propellent.
Developers claim the Quantum Drive on IVO’s BARRY-1 satellite goes beyond Newton used relativistic physics. Developed by Richard Mansell, CEO of IVO, the Quantum Drive is based on Quantized Inertia (QI) a theory developed by McCulloch, formerly a lecturer at the University of Plymouth. McCulloch’s work was funded by DARPA, who want to know if propellentless space drives were really possible.
DARPA’s interest stemmed from a slew of controversial reports of successful tests of drives which, according to the accepted laws of physics, ought to be impossible. The original was the EmDrive created by British inventor Roger Shawyer in 2002, which bounces microwaves in a sealed cavity to generate thrust. There was little interest in Shawyer’s invention until a Chinese team led by Prof Juan Yang at Xi’an Northwestern Polytechnic built their own version and reported success in 2008.
Others followed, including NASA’s Eagleworks. The amount of thrust is always comparatively tiny – rarely as much as the weight of a paperclip – and results inconsistent. Sometimes a device worked better or worse than expected, or not at all. And there was no theoretical understanding of how it was even possible to get thrust from such a device.
McCulloch completed the five-year study earlier this year and handed the results to DARPA. His conclusion: it is possible to generate propellentless thrust in the laboratory. McCulloch says his theory explains how propellentless drives work and that he has has tested drives with a power-to-thrust ratio twelve times better than existing satellite drives and believes the technology can transform the space industry. Shawyer says an EmDrive could talk astronauts to Mars in just ten weeks rather than the months required with existing drives
Space: The Definitive Test?
There have been endless debates about the validity of experiments, possible sources of error, and accusations of fraud. Testing the drive in space should rule out any experimental error or measuring artefacts: if it works, it works, whatever anyone’s theory says.
Solar radiation, thermal expansion and interactions with the magnetic field may also affect the orbit, but any such effects will be tiny compared to the 100-kilometer increase in altitude that IVO hopes to achieve. Success should be incontrovertible.
However, the drive may not work even if the theory is right, due to other problems.
“The only issue is if something goes amiss in space and there is a technical fault,” says McCulloch. “Would we know whether it was a fail or a technical fault?”
Diagnosis and tinkering is challenging enough in the laboratory, but impossible when the drive is thousands of miles away in space.
“If this is their first satellite, then they may have some hard lessons to learn” says Shawyer, who has experience in the satellite industry. He notes that small cubesats are generally less reliable than their larger cousins, and the challenges of making a new experimental design work in miniaturized format are considerable.
But other missions are in the pipeline. McCulloch is working with two other teams planning to launch cubesats with propellentless thrusters, one of them with connections to NASA.
There is also DARPA, who commissioned McCulloch’s study. The agency are no longer working directly with McCulloch but have launched a program called Otter, to demonstrate “ability to maneuver without regret,” according to budget documents.
‘Maneuver without regret’ is a key phrase in spacecraft operations. Because all current engines have a limited delta-v, any maneuver carries the risk of wasting irreplaceable fuel. DARPA are looking for something new; a solicitation document for Otter states that “Specifically excluded is research that primarily results in evolutionary improvements to the existing state of practice” indicating that they are looking for revolutionary technology.
Otter will also culminate with a demonstration in orbit, because again this is seen as the ultimate test, but even then a radical and largely unproven system based on new physics may struggle to win acceptance from the Pentagon.
McCulloch says that his work in this field has been a marathon and that one or two successes in space may not be enough, but he believes that the technology will win out in the end.
“I’ve been going 18 years and there have been setbacks but the overall trajectory has been solidly upwards,” says McCulloch .
Meanwhile the world will be watching BARRY-1 and waiting to see whether this small but highly controversial pioneer also achieves an upwards trajectory.