Science and Health

NASA Tests 'Impossible' Engine, Finds Out It's Really Fast

An engine thought not to be possible was tested by NASA researchers who found that surprisingly, it actually worked opening the door to faster travel.

NASA Tests 'Impossible' Engine, Finds Out It's Really Fast

It took the Curiosity rover more than eight months to reach Mars and land on the little red planet, but what if we could shave that down to a matter of weeks? (Via Getty Images)

Meet Guido Fetta, the inventor of the "Cannae Drive" — a space engine that traditional physics said wasn't supposed to work. 

That's because the Cannae Drive doesn't use any liquid or nuclear fuel to produce propulsion, just microwaves. Fetta was able to convince NASA to test his engine out and, surprisingly enough, it worked. Though they aren't sure how.

Without getting too much into the technical jargon, the paper's abstract says the Cannae Drive was able to produce 30-50 micro-Newtons of thrust on two test engines without using "classical electromagnetic phenomenon" and thus, potentially used "quantum vacuum virtual plasma". They plan to do more testing in the future.

A writer at ExtremeTech provides a somewhat more layman explanation:

"The central insight here (assuming this isn’t all a big mistake) is that something called quantum vacuum fluctuations will occasionally spontaneously create particles all throughout the vacuum of space ... The thruster essentially turns these virtual particles into a plasma and expels them out the back of the ship."

And The Verge notes that, if produced on a larger scale, this sort of engine could result in "ultra-light weight, ultra fast spacecraft that could carry humans to Mars in weeks instead of months, and to the nearest star system ... in just about 30 years."

So, quantum particles get turned into fuel by the engine and that creates thrust. Got it. But we might not want to jump on the next ship to Proxima Centurai yet. Popular Science spoke with a former NASA engineer who cautioned folks not to get too excited.

​​“Whenever you get results that have extraordinary implications, you have to be cautious and somewhat skeptical that they can be repeated before you can accept them as a new theory.” 

Fetta's not the first to venture into this microwave quantum-ish thrust engine type. The whole concept of the Cannae Drive is similar to a prototype engine Wired reported on last year called the "emDrive" developed by a British scientist and successfully tested for the first time in China — something they note the West didn't seem interested in.

While we're on the topic of getting around in space, we might as well look at some of the other ideas out there that aren't quite in use yet.  

First up is a sail, in space. Called a "lightsail", this eliminates the need for fuel, like the Cannae Drive. It uses the power of light beams to move about space. It would also need a very large sail to go anywhere outside the solar system.  (Via YouTube / The Planetary Society)

Another theory is to use what is called a warp drive, which would use negative energy to move space, instead of the ship itself. It could allow for faster-than-light travel, but this would require massive amounts of energy that we can't currently produce. (Via

If neither of those pan out, there's always wormholes, which essentially serve as "shortcuts" through space. The idea's on NASA's "What We'd Like To Achieve" list. (Via National Geographic)