The Impossible EmDrive Engine Could Propel Spaceships to 99% The Speed of Light, But…

All space rockets work on the idea that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Space rockets shoot propellants in one direction to move in the other. But a NASA engineer working on the EmDrive thinks he could get us to the stars without conventional fuel.

As environmentalists continue to criticize the number of pollutants in SpaceX Starship launch trials, is it possible to create a space rocket that doesn’t need fuel? 

If you listen to the ex-head of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, who has in the past suggested that NASA should use trampolines and broomsticks instead of Russian rocket technology, perhaps there is something in the idea of trying out a new technology that doesn’t require fuel?

EmDrive may well be the future solution that can get astronauts and equipment into space without using fuel; furthermore, the scientist David Burns who is working on it, is hopeful that one day the EmDrive may travel at speeds as fast as 99% of the speed of light.


What is EmDrive, and who is David Burns?

Jon Cartwright was writing for and reviewed a discussion with David Burns about EmDrive.


The EmDrive is being designed by David Burns at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. It uses mass-changing effects that are known to happen at near-light speeds. Burns has put a paper on NASA’s technical reports server that explains the idea.

The idea of EmDrive, doing what is theoretically possible

Cartwright explains to understand how Burns’s engine works, you need to imagine a box sitting on a smooth surface, and a rod that a ring can slide along is inside that box. 


If a spring inside the box pushes the ring, the ring will move along the rod in one direction while the box moves in the opposite direction. When the ring gets to the end of the box, it will bounce backward, and the direction of the box’s recoil will also change. This is action-reaction, also called Newton’s third law of motion. 

1024px STEMonstrations Newtons Third Law of Motion Frame
Newton’s Third Law of Motion by NASA

In the scientific experience of trying this experiment so far, in most cases, it keeps the box from moving in any other way than back and forth. But, Burns is trying another experiment.

What if the ring’s mass is much bigger when it moves in one direction than the other? Then one end of the box would have a stronger kick than the other. Action would be stronger than reaction, and the box would speed up.


This change in mass is not against the laws of physics. Einstein’s theory of special relativity says that things get heavier as they move closer to the speed of light. This is something that particle accelerators must take into account. Burns’s idea could be easily implemented by replacing the ring with a circular particle accelerator. During one stroke, ions would be quickly sped up to relativistic speeds and slowed down during the other.

Burns thinks it makes sense to get rid of the box and rod and use the particle accelerator to move both side to side and in a circle. He believes the accelerator would need to be in the shape of a helix.

Burns is developing EmDrive on his own

Burns has been working on the EmDrive idea on his own, without any help from NASA, and he admits that it is a terrible idea. 

EmDrive built by Eagleworks inside the test chamber
EmDrive built by Eagleworks by David A. Brady

The EmDrive is a conceptual “helical” engine that could defy the laws of physics and create forward thrust without fuel. 

Outside of space rocket research, a helical engine would be a type of internal combustion engine that uses a helical gear to convert linear motion into rotational motion. Helical engines are typically more efficient than other engines, producing less noise and vibration. The most common type of helical engine is a gasoline engine, but diesel and other types of engines are also available.

A helical gear is a cylindrical gear with teeth that are oblique to the face of the gear. 


Helical engines work by using a series of connected gears to rotate a shaft. The gears are arranged in a spiral pattern, and the shaft is connected to the engine’s crankshaft. As the engine turns, the shaft turns the gears, which in turn rotate the engine’s crankshaft. This action creates the engine’s power.

A big engine needed to reach nearly the speed of light

Researchers of the conceptual EmDrive “helical” engine hope that it will be able to get to 99 percent the speed of light.

Engineer David Burns thinks the engine would need to be huge – 200 meters long and 12 meters in diameter to achieve that. It would need 165 megawatts of power to generate just 1 newton of thrust. 


Burns suggests that a loop of ions be sped up to almost the speed of light before their speeds (and, by extension, their masses) are changed. According to Einstein’s law of relativity, this would cause exponential forward thrust without the need for fuel.

The history and main points of the EmDrive concept

  • EmDrive is a propulsion system that produces thrust by converting electrical energy into microwaves and beaming them out the back of the device. 
  • Roger Shawyer first proposed the EmDrive in 2001. 
  • The EmDrive has been the subject of much controversy, with some scientists claiming it violates the laws of physics
  • Despite this, a number of experiments have claimed to measure thrust from the EmDrive, though these results are often disputed
  • In 2016, NASA announced that they had successfully tested the EmDrive in their labs and measured a small amount of thrust. 
  • The EmDrive is not yet ready for spaceflight but could potentially be used for long-duration missions or to explore deep space. 
  • The EmDrive could also be used on Earth, though its efficiency would need to be significantly improved for it to be practical. 
  • The EmDrive is not the only propulsion system being developed that doesn’t require propellant, though it is the most well-known. 
  • If the EmDrive does work, it could revolutionize spaceflight and allow humans to explore the solar system and beyond in a much shorter time frame.
  • There is still much work to be done to confirm the EmDrive’s feasibility, but it remains an exciting possibility for the future of space exploration.

Some people have been skeptical about it, but Burns thinks his idea is worth pursuing. He says, “I’m fine with putting it out there.” Burns knows the idea may not work but believes it is worth a try. But in all tests to date, the EmDrive failed to produce any thrust…