The internet has gotten itself into a tizzy lately with headlines like “Has NASA Accidentally Invented The Warp Drive?” Let’s stop with the sensational headlines saying NASA has discovering Warp Drive. If you insist on a Star Trek reference, what NASA has been testing looks a lot more like an impulse engine. Warp Drive just sounds cooler I guess.
As NASA themselves state, “NASA is not pursuing interstellar flight”. What they did accomplish was a lab test in a vacuum of an EM drive. That is, an engine that is powered by electricity with no reaction mass, and on the surface, this sounds like it would violate conservation of energy. Take a look at the NASA Spaceflight article if you want to understand the real story.
This is about electro-magnetic propulsion, which would not in itself lead to faster than light travel. It could however lead to practical propulsion systems that could be very useful for numerous applications, being substantially more cost effective and energy efficient than Rockets and producing much more thrust than Ion engines. (Ion engines are in fact in use today on space probes including DAWN which is now in orbit around the dwarf planet Ceres.)
So, if you have to use a Star Trek reference, NASA has successfully tested a concept for an Impulse Engine in a hard vacuum. In fact, the test rigs match very closely with how an Impulse Engine is described in Star Trek, and could provide a means to travel between Earth and Mars in a matter of days instead of months. This could be a game changing innovation, from a deceptively simple concept. After all, variations tested in China were built with the magnetron from a microwave oven!
There’s one big outstanding problem right now: Everyone seems to agree there is thrust being produced, but nobody knows how it is being produced! This is the best part of scientific discovery – seeing something happen, and not understanding why. This research may lead to a new means of propelling our spacecraft, but could also open a new understanding about our universe in the process. This is a story worth following to be sure, but let’s just agree not to call it warp drive.