Tuesday, September 06, 2016

"Impossible" Cannae Drive Will Sink or Swim on Proposed Demonstration Flight

          By Brian Orlotti

The inventor of a controversial propellant-less spacecraft engine has announced that he is forming a company and raising funds to launch a demonstrator into Earth orbit. A success would force a rethink of known physics and serve as vindication in the face of harsh criticism from the scientific community.

The proposed mechanism for the Cannae drive, an updated Emdrive. As outlined in the August 4th, 2014 Nerdist post, "How Possible is that "Impossible" Space Drive," NASA tested a version of this engine developed by American inventor Fetta in 2013 and found that it could produce "thrust without any fuel." Of course,the Cannae and EM drives are both closed systems which seem to develop thrust out of thin air and violate the law of conservation of momentum, which states that "the total momentum of a closed system does not change." Independent validation that the drive functions as advertised would certainly upend our current understanding of physics. Graphic c/o Nerdist.

As outlined in the August 17th, 2016 press release under the mostly generic title, "Press Release from Cannae,"Guido Fetta, an American chemical engineer and CEO of Cannae Inc., has solicited commercial partners, including aerospace component manufacturer LAI International of Tempe, AZ and spacecraft engineering firm SpaceQuest Ltd. of Fairfax, VA to help design and launch an orbital cubesat, to test the engine.

This engine, dubbed the Cannae Drive, was invented in 2006 by Fetta. It consists of a conical chamber into which a magnetron emits microwaves. The microwaves cause the chamber to resonate and, so Fetta claims, produce thrust. Fetta’s device shares a lineage with another propellant-less engine, the EmDrive, first demonstrated by British engineer Roger Shawyer in 2003.

A propellant-less drive would revolutionize spaceflight. Satellites’ useful lifetimes would no longer be limited by their amount of on-board fuel and flight times through the solar system could be greatly reduced. The technology’s tantalizing prospects have helped spur enthusiasm for research, despite unknown physics and vocal opposition.

Shawyer’s EmDrive was initially ridiculed and ignored in the West. Scientists dismissed the idea of a propellant-less drive on the grounds that it violated the law of conservation of momentum i.e. that a spacecraft cannot accelerate forward without some form of exhaust ejected backwards.

Shawyer and Fetta have offered their own explanations for their results. Shawyer claims that relativistic effects produce different radiation pressures at the two ends of the drive, leading to a net force. Fetta has put forth a similar idea involving Lorentz (electromagnetic) forces.

In 2008, a Chinese research team at Xi'an Northwestern Polytechnic began investigating the EmDrive. The team conducted experiments and published a series of papers. In 2012, the team claimed to have built a device capable of producing a few ounces of thrust for a few kilowatts of input, comparable to standard ion thrusters.

In 2014, propellant-less drives gained wide exposure as NASA's Eagleworks Laboratories team at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas tested several devices, including two built by Cannae Inc. When the Eagleworks team reported positive results, they encountered intense disbelief and open hostility from the scientific community.

Orthodox scientists’ reactions ranged from shrieking outrage over NASA’s supposed waste of taxpayer funds to open accusations of incompetence/fraud against Guido Fetta and the NASA Eagleworks team. Eagleworks researchers have suggested that the drives are actually pushing against "quantum vacuum virtual plasma"--- virtual particles that shift in and out of existence. The team’s work continues and is currently undergoing peer review.
Editors Note: As outlined in the August, 30th, 2016 International Business Times article, "EmDrive: Nasa Eagleworks' paper has finally passed peer review, says scientist in the know," an "independent scientist" has "confirmed that the paper by scientists at the Nasa Eagleworks Laboratories on achieving thrust using highly controversial space propulsion technology EmDrive has passed peer review, and will soon be published by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA)." 
For reaction to the announcement, check out the September 6th, 2016 Universe Today post, "NASA’S EM Drive Passes Peer Review, But Don't Get Your Hopes Up."
In 2015, Martin Tajmar, a physicist at the Dresden University of Technology, investigated the EmDrive. Previously, Tajmar had highlighted various errors in Fetta’s experimental setups that had likely skewed their results. Despite this, when Tajmar built his own EmDrive, he found that it truly did appear to generate thrust. Tajmar has worked to rule out some sources of error in his experiments such as air currents, leaking microwaves, ionization, photon thrust—though not enough to satisfy skeptics.

Having endured intense skepticism and ridicule over the years, it appears that Guido Fetta has now decided to "go for broke."

Roughly the size of a shoebox, one quarter of the cubesat will be taken up by a small Cannae drive. Fetta intends for the satellite to remain in orbit for at least six months. Doubtless, Fetta’s logic is that the longer the satellite remains in orbit, the more evident propellant-less thrust will be.

No launch date has been announced as yet.

In its derision of Fetta and Shawyer, the scientific community has dismissed their work as flawed and even fraudulent. A visceral demonstration of propellant-less propulsion will either prove the skeptics right or allow the technology to move forward and fulfill its potential.

Either way, progress continues.
Brian Orlotti.

Brian Orlotti is a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.


  1. I think the 'thumbs up / thumbs down' on a single test is probably not good science. I'd like to see multiple trials and replications of either positive or negative results... unless there are quite spectacular positive results on the first trial. There are many reasons why a trial could fail. Building any system for long term operation in space is a learning process, so I would not be surprised if it took them a couple experiments to get it to function at all.

  2. Hello Dale,

    Agreed. Repeatability of results is, of course, essential to the scientific method. A single test might not be enough, so hopefully Fetta can raise enough money for multiple satellites.

    My main issue has been with the callous things said about Guido Fetta and the NASA Eagleworks team. The Cannae drive should be allowed to succeed or fail on its own merits.

    Finding out what doesn't work helps steer you toward what does, after all.


    Brian Orlotti


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