A controversial new type of electric propulsion system that physicists say defies Newton’s Laws of Motion, known as the Quantum Drive, has secured a spot on a SpaceX rocket and will launch into low Earth orbit (LEO) this October.
Designed by IVO Ltd., an electronics prototyping company, the promising yet controversial Quantum Drive could change the future of space travel and, if proven to work, would potentially rewrite or expand many of the accepted principles of inertia and motion that have existed for centuries.
Newtonian Physics Says creating inertia Without Propellant is Impossible
Rockets expel massive amounts of ignited propellants to create thrust in conventional space travel. This dynamic is governed by what is known as the rocket equation, which helps engineers and mission planners determine exactly how much fuel is needed to reach and maintain orbit or, in the most ambitious missions, leave Earth’s gravitational pull and head deep into the solar system.
In recent decades, efforts to leave behind the cumbersome rocket equation have led to impressive advances, including ion thrusters and solar sails. Still, all of the systems humans use to move vehicles through the vacuum of space must obey the laws of motion first set down by Sir Isaac Newton in the late 17th century.
Most notably, Newton’s third law of motion explains that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. So, in order to move a rocket, satellite, or other vehicle through space, it must be propelled forward by ejecting something backward.
More recently, as our understanding of physics has evolved and new tools and equipment, including extremely powerful computers, have allowed scientists to look for and test seemingly impossible theories, new ideas about moving through the vacuum of space have begun to emerge. One such concept is the idea of Quantized Inertia (QI) proposed by physicist Mike McCulloch, a professor at the University of Plymouth.
On his website, McCulloch notes that Newton’s First Law defines inertia with the observation that “Objects move in straight lines at constant speed unless pushed on.” McCulloch further notes that although Newton defines inertia in these simple terms, the 17th-century genius never quite explains what exactly inertia is.
In an effort to offer an explanation for the true nature of inertia itself, McCulloch developed his QI theory, which looks to the strange and mysterious properties of the quantum world for answers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his efforts to explain inertia have led to wide-ranging criticisms since his proposal seems to defy the laws of motion first set down so many centuries ago, laws that have proven extremely reliable for rocket scientists and engineers alike.
In recent years, a company called IVO Ltd. has developed a Quantum Drive that they say is based on McCulloch’s theory and that has proven to generate thrust in laboratory tests, despite the skepticism from mainstream physicists.
Now, after a canceled flight in June, that Quantum Drive is heading into space to undergo real-world testing sometime in October. This means that, unlike other theoretical drives, including the controversial EMDrive proposed and designed by engineer Robert Shawyer that have yet to get off of the ground, IVO’s Quantum Drive will finally have a chance to fail and prove conventional physicists correct or actually work by successfully creating thrust, a result that would force physicists around the world to expand their current models to include McCulloch’s controversial theories.
Nearly 100 Hours of Vacuum Chamber Testing of the Quantum Drive Revealed tantalizing Results
In anticipation of the October launch, The Debrief sat down with IVO’s founder and CEO Richard Mansell, who explained the concept behind the drive, the work he and his team of engineers have undertaken to get to this point, and the anticipation of finally being able to test their drive in outer space.
According to Mansell, the company began in 2007 to develop electronic prototypes for other companies, including designs for autonomous vehicles, prototype rotary engines, and even drones. Then, after receiving a patent for a capacitor used in the wireless transmission of power, a primary market for IVO’s commercial endeavors, Mansell says he became interested in exploring the wider field of physics, including the idea of inertia.
“We began playing around with the idea of ‘what is gravity’ and ‘what is inertia,’” Mansell told The Debrief. “Then I came across the work of Professor Mike McCulloch at Plymouth University.”
Mansell said he was able to speak to McCulloch directly and soon found himself captivated by the idea that QI could dramatically change the way satellites and other spacecraft move through the vacuum of space. Namely, they could simply use power collected by solar panels and do away with the need for carrying onboard propellants.
Mansell said he also realized that his electronics prototyping facility had most of the equipment necessary to begin analyzing and testing the work others had begun to do in exploring the concept of QI.
“What if we start off by trying to replicate other people’s work and see if there is any merit (to QI)?” he told The Debrief. Those experiments took place in their North Dakota headquarters and at what Mansell calls “IVO East” at their facility in Virginia.
After some promising yet inconclusive results, the IVO team hooked up with E-Labs in Fredericksburg, Virginia, which among other things, is home to a world-class thermal vacuum chamber facility that was the ideal place to take their testing to the next level. Almost immediately, those efforts began to produce some tantalizing results.
Still, to confirm that their Quantum Drive was producing a small yet measurable thrust (around 10 millinewtons), Mansell says they brought in outside experts to ensure the measured thrust wasn’t coming from some other aspect of their drive like electrostatic forces.
“We’ve had a number of third-party individuals in the area of astrophysics, including university professors that this is their field, come out in person to try and find where we’re missing something,” Mansell explained. “And that really helped a lot of our development.”
During this intensive testing process, Mansell says he and his team had to make a number of significant changes to previous QI experiments that ultimately led to them applying for their own patents.
“The reason why we went a different route is we wanted something that was practical that would actually work in space, made out of materials that would work in space, that would have the longevity of working for years in space,” Mansell explained. “And so the direction we developed products actually sacrificed a little bit of the cutting edge thrust for reliability.”
Finally, Mansell says, after nearly 100 hours of testing at the E-labs facility, their Quantum Drive was still showing thrust, which was consistent with McCulloch’s theories and couldn’t be accounted for by any other force acting on the drive.
“We got to the point where our third-party inspectors said, at this point, there’s nothing we can do to debug what you’re doing,” said Mansell. “It’s just got to go to space. It’s really got to go to space.”
After a Cancelled June 2023 Launch, the Quantum Drive is Finally Preparing to go to Space
At long last, and after 16 years of curiosity, trial, and error, the Quantum Dive was ready for the ultimate test.
“We’ve gone from the experiments to prototypes to products,” Mansell told The Debrief. “And we’ve been very careful about not releasing this process publicly until now because there’s a lot of skepticism, as there should be. Plus, we wanted to prove it to ourselves enough that we were willing to get behind it (financially) and actually put it in space before shooting it out to the market.”
To get their Quantum Dive into space, the IVO team hooked up with Rogue Space Systems, whose own technology testing satellite, which has no onboard propulsion of its own, was already scheduled to launch aboard a SpaceX rocket in June of 2023.
“We wanted to make sure that there were no other thrusters on the same satellite,” Mansell explained to The Debrief. “So that if there is thrust when something’s demonstrated in space with this satellite, it would be known definitively that it was our Quantum Drive that was propelling the satellite and nothing else.”
That June launch was ultimately canceled due to a faulty piece of equipment that Mansell says came from an outside vendor that had to do with power transmission and wasn’t part of his actual Quantum Drive. Fortunately, Rogue and IVO were able to immediately secure space on another SpaceX rocket due for launch in October.
How Will IVO Know If Their Quantum Drive Was Successful?
For their actual test, Mansell says they have mounted two different configurations of their Quantum Drive to the Rogue satellite, providing redundancy if one drive fails and also allowing them to test two slightly different versions of the same concept.
“They’re slightly different configurations [and] slightly different power levels,” Mansell said. “And so we’re going to be able to test individual drives individually as well as together.”
The tests themselves will involve turning on the drives and using any thrust actually created to raise and lower the orbit of the Rogue satellite. Any change in orbital altitude will be measured by onboard sensors and should only be accounted for by their drive since the Rogue Space Systems satellite is a “dumb satellite,” meaning it has no propulsion system of its own and only has the ability to change orientation, not altitude.
“Our goal is to raise the orbit,” said Mansell. “We would like to do several demonstrations. We’re going to do several orbits of just no thrust whatsoever to get a baseline set of data so we know what the background noise is. And then we’ll turn on the thrusters, the Quantum Drives, and raise the orbit. Then, the goal is to lower the orbit and be able to do this predictably, back and forth, and see if we can change the inclination of the orbit. That would be fantastic.”
Along with the onboard sensors that will measure any change in orbit, Mansell says third-party observers who have no investment in the success or failure of the Quantum Drive will confirm any observed altitude changes from the ground.
“We have both onboard data gathering equipment, as well as ground stations and third-party individuals and groups that will be working to verify these orbital changes,” he explained.
When Will the Test Results be Made Public?
Mansell says that the first few weeks after the launch are reserved by Rogue Space Systems for initial testing and orientation of the satellite. But soon thereafter, his tests will begin.
“So we’re looking at, Lord willing, within the first four weeks to be able to start the tests, and by the eighth week to have definitive data.”
When asked how soon those results will make their way to the public, Mansell laid out his team’s cautious approach.
“We’ll be very guarded about this for a couple of reasons,” he said. “One is because we don’t want to prematurely put out positive data that then we have to retract. Also, we want experts in the field that are outside of our company to go over the data and try to find mistakes. And that’s going to take some time.”
When pushed for an estimate, Mansell said that if definitively positive results occur rather quickly and are unable to be dismissed by outside observers as anything other than positive thrust produced by the Quantum Drive, he could see them making that data public within two to six months after launch.
“If we have really clear data after our first several runs, then as soon as two months from launch, we should be able to say ‘look, this is unequivocally (producing thrust),’” Mansell told The Debrief. “If there’s no way it would have got up to this altitude by itself for this orbit by itself, then we must have done it.”
Notably, Mansell said that even if they are faced with some potential failures or power issues, his team should see positive or negative results rather quickly.
“If the drives even work at 50% of what they expect to do, it should be clear results,” he told The Debrief, “even if we’re down to one drive, actually, less than one drive. So (even with) one drive not running at full capacity, we should still be able to have clear results.”
What a Successful Test of the Quantum Drive Could Mean for the Future of Physics and Space Travel
Mansell says that the real promise of QI is that, unlike conventional rockets that have to haul all of the propellants they will ever need from launch, the Quantum Drive can use solar panels to gather electricity and convert that into thrust.
Of course, he also notes that any thrust generated would be extremely small, so it would best be used for changing the orbits of satellites or for deep space missions where removing the need to carry fuel could dramatically change the distances they could travel.
Also, while they are enthusiastic about the prospects of a successful test of their Quantum Drive, Mansell, and his team say that they don’t believe that their system will necessarily rewrite all of physics, per se, but instead will “expand our understanding of inertia” that will result in the expansion of tried and true principles of physics that could change the future of spaceflight permanently, and for the better.
“This isn’t magic,” Mansell told The Debrief, summing up the potential results of a positive test. “There’s a lot of physics that you also still have to deal with. I think sometimes people get the idea of QI and think that we’re going to be able to potentially generate electricity or be able to launch off of Earth.”
“Maybe someone will get to figure out those things, but that is not our goal,” Mansell said.
Fundamentally, Mansell said that there are several challenges that arise from attempting to work beyond physics laws that cannot be violated, and that rather than the establishment of some kind of “new physics,” he and his team are merely working to broaden our existing knowledge of principles in keeping with existing physical constants.
“It’s not so much that we have ‘broken physics’ and come up with a new physics, as much as we’re expanding our current physics with more physics,” Mansell says, “which is what all scientists should be working on and not be afraid of.”