About 10 years ago, a little-known aerospace engineer called Roger Shawyer made an extraordinary claim. Take a truncated cone, he said, bounce microwaves back and forth inside it and the result will be a thrust toward the narrow end of the cone. Voila … a revolutionary thruster capable of sending spacecraft to the planets and beyond. Shawyer called it the EmDrive.
But this was an obvious violation of the law of conservation of momentum, so the crtics said it was not possible. But now six independent experiments have backed Shawyer’s original claims. So what is going on?
Mike McCulloch at Plymouth University in the U.K. McCulloch’s explanation is based on a new theory of inertia that makes startling predictions about the way objects move under very small accelerations. … inertia must quantized at small accelerations.
McCulloch says there is observational evidence for this in the form of the famous fly by anomalies. These are the strange jumps in momentum observed in some spacecraft as they fly past Earth toward other planets. That’s exactly what his theory predicts.
It seems that physics is advancing:
Shawyer’s EmDrive has the potential to revolutionize spaceflight because it requires no propellant, the biggest limiting factor in today’s propulsion systems. But in the absence of any convincing explanation for how it works, scientists and engineers are understandably wary.
McCulloch’s theory could help to change that, although it is hardly a mainstream idea. It makes two challenging assumptions. The first is that photons have inertial mass. The second is that the speed of light must change within the cavity. That won’t be easy for many theorists to stomach.
The entire article is highly recommended for the technically-oriented.