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Since the birth of the space age, the dream of catching a ride to another solar system has been hobbled by the “tyranny of the rocket equation,” which sets hard limits on the speed and size of the spacecraft we sling into the cosmos. Even with today’s most powerful rocket engines, scientists estimate it would take 50,000 years to reach our closest interstellar neighbor, Alpha Centauri. If humans ever hope to see an alien sunrise, transit times will have to drop significantly.

Of the advanced propulsion concepts that could theoretically pull that off, few have generated as much excitement—and controversy—as the EmDrive. First described nearly two decades ago, the EmDrive works by converting electricity into microwaves and channeling this electromagnetic radiation through a conical chamber. In theory, the microwaves can exert force against the walls of the chamber to produce enough thrust to propel a spacecraft once it’s in space. At this point, however, the EmDrive only exists as a laboratory prototype and it’s still unclear whether it’s able to produce thrust at all. If it does, the forces it generates aren’t strong enough to be registered by the naked eye, much less propel a spacecraft.

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Category: Science