The latest research comes from a team headed by Yang Juan, Professor of Propulsion Theory and Engineering of Aeronautics and Astronautics at the Northwestern Polytechnic University in Xi'an. Titled "Net thrust measurement of propellantless microwave thruster," it was published last year in the academic journal Acta Physica Sinica, now translated into English.
The technology is controversial because of that key word "propellantless". Space drives rely on Newton's laws of motion: all are based on the principle of firing propellant out the back at high speed, pushing the spacecraft forward. Even with endless power from solar cells, thrust is still limited by the supply of propellant, even with high-velocity ion drives. Numerous attempts have been made to overcome this, from the infamous Dean Drive of the 1950's to Nasa's experiments with antigravity from spinning superconductors in the 1990's. All have failed, and the efforts of pseudoscientific cranks and scammers have left the field thoroughly discredited.
British engineer Roger Shaywer stepped into this dangerous field in 2001, after twenty years with European satellite firm EADS Astrium. He set up his own company, Satellite Propulsion Research (SPR) Ltd, with the aid of a modest grant from the UK's Department of Trade and Industry.
Shawyer aimed to develop an EmDrive: a closed, conical container which, when filled with resonating microwaves, experiences a net thrust towards the wide end. It seems to violate of the law of conservation of momentum, implied by Newton, which says that no closed system can have a net thrust. However, Shawyer says net thrust occurs because the microwaves have a group velocity which is greater in one direction than the other and Einstein's relativity comes into play. Group velocity, the speed of a collection of electromagnetic waves, is a tricky business -- a pulse of light can even have a group velocity which is greater than the speed of light -- but can it really cause net thrust?