Look, ma! No thrusters!
All spacecraft in existence today work based on Newton's third law — for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Nearly all toss stuff out out the spacecraft's back creates a reaction force that accelerates the spacecraft forward.note
The rest rely on stuff thrown AT the spacecraft and driving it forward as it's hit, even if that "stuff" is just sunlight.
This means that real-life and conceivable future spaceships either—
- Are mostly fuel tanks with a controlled explosion chamber in the back, with comparatively little volume for basic life support and human habitation.
- Rely on an even MORE massive installation back home, and can't go anywhere out of that installation's range.
- Are excruciatingly slow because they rely on very subtle forces.
Most Science Fiction
authors, however, are writing about spaceships because they want to write about humans going places in them. They don't want to write about reaction mass, so Science Fiction
writers would prefer spacecraft to have much more of their volume dedicated to human activities. They typically want their spaceships to be able to operate within convenient distance of someplace interesting, rather than turning half the town into slag as they land and the other half as they leave
. They want their spacecraft to flit from one Planet Ville
to another, not just tool around wherever an earthbound laser can be shined on them. They DEFINITELY want it to go fast enough to get someplace interesting before everyone aboard dies of boredom. note
A reactionless drive or reactionless engine is a piece of advanced technology invented to make life easy for those Science Fiction
For our purposes it is sufficient to define the drive as follows: "any form of self-contained propulsion not based around expulsion of fuel or reaction mass". In other words the drive will propel a vehicle, almost always a starship, anywhere it wants to go without having to waste space carrying propellant. Sometimes authors will try to control these drives by requiring a power plant to make it keep working but more than a few will keep working forever.
Obviously this would be an awesome invention! So why don't we have them? Well, naively it would shatter the fundamental basis of all physics since Isaac Newton
, as detailed here
, and modern theories predict effects too small to be useful. Thoughtful Speculative Fiction
writers have also noted that any sort of reactionless drive would provide those who possess it with an infinitely
powerful weapon (compare Weaponized Exhaust
, which is the use of a reaction drive as a weapon). Note that this would not be a problem if they required truly massive amounts of power note
but many examples don't.
Some writers try to side step this potential danger by setting a maximum speed that the drive can go. Unfortunately while this eliminates the possibility of an infinitely powerful missile it still leaves the developer with an infinitely powerful energy source leaving the writer with most of the same problems. Other times, it may be limited to Higher-Tech Species
or Sufficiently Advanced Aliens
who presumably have some scientific understanding beyond the ken of "lesser races".
Supertrope of the Alcubierre Drive
. The Ramscoop
and Solar Sail
are sister tropes; each is a plain old reaction drive, but one that uses a clever trick to react with the ambient environment instead of needing to haul extra mass or stick to a base station. It is also very common for an incautious (or sneaky!) author to write something that's allegedly one of those two, but from the way it's described working is really a reactionless drive in disguise.
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- Mobile Suit Victory Gundam featured the reactionless Minovsky Drive (a scaled down version of the system used to make battleships fly) on the Victory Gundam and it's successor, the V2, granting thruster-less levitation within atmospheres and in the latter case enough surplus power to sustain the enormous "Wings of Light".
- Technically the Minovsky Drive is not a reactionless drive, but a system to use the Minovsky particles from the fusion reactor powering the suit for propulsion directly, thus avoiding the need for dedicated reaction mass. It is more akin to a photon drive hybridized with an exotic fusion torch.
- Gunbuster features the Eltreum, a 70 km-long carrier craft that uses mathematical computations and a load of other stuff to somehow warp the fabric of spacetime itself in order to move.
- The trope namer is Larry Niven's Known Space universe stories. The utility of this technology is made clear in the Ringworld books as it allows the ships to remain stationary relative to the Ringworld for extended periods.
- Cavorite from H. G. Wells' The First Men in the Moon created anti-gravitational thrust. It blocks the earth's gravity in the same way lead blocks electromagnetic fields, allowing the moon's weaker gravity to pull the vessel up. Needless to say Jules Verne had a fit.
- Ender In Exile actually plays this one fairly straight as far as power goes. The starship engines work with a directional forcefield, dissolving space debris in front of the ship and propelling it out the back. Of course, it was the same dissolving technology that created the Little Doctor Device, a weapon that rips molecules apart, increasing by proximity of mass. Meaning that if someone drove the ship's engine into a sizable mass (say, a planet) the entire structure would unweave.
- That's still a reaction drive, just not carrying the mass; it's essentially a Ram Scoop. The "Park Shift" drives in use by Speaker for the Dead seem to be true reactionless drives, somehow manipulating reference frames to spin the universe past your ship (at relativistic but subluminal speeds), but Card doesn't go into much detail. (The Park Shift drive is also an inertialess drive of sorts; a spacecraft can instantly switch from a dead-stop to going 99% of the speed of light without having to spend time accelerating.)
- The Cities in Flight series has the Dillon-Wagoner Graviton Polarity Generator or "spindizzy" which gets more efficiency when it moves greater amounts of mass.
- Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke gives one to the eponymous mysterious alien spacecraft, and acknowledges its impossibility in order to add to the mystery. "There goes Newton's Third Law."
- The Impeller Drive of Honor Harrington generates a pair of bands of extremely high gravitational distortion that allow a ship to go forward in a method that is likened to surfing. Top speed for unmanned items (such as missiles) is in excess of 99% of lightspeed under the right conditions. Manned vessels are generally restricted to 0.8c for military vessels and 0.6c for commercial, but that's a function of particle shielding not the drive. The real limiting factor is how great an acceleration that your crew can withstand, something that is increased by inertial compensators.
- Isaac Asimov:
- In The Gods Themselves, he managed to come up with a fully thought through mechanism for this that doesn't involve abandoning conservation of momentum. There might not be anything to push against where you are in this universe, but what about the one next door?
- In the fourth book of the Foundation series, Foundation's Edge, the (First) Foundation produces a few top-secret starships that use a "gravitic drive" for maneuvering in normal space. These ships use no reaction mass. According to the next book, Foundation and Earth, the gravitic drive draws its power from the combined gravitational field of the entire galaxy.
- The eponymous technology in Anti-Grav Unlimited are rods that act like "gravity magnets". Through experimentation, he not only manages to create a perpetual motion engine for his van (by welding two rods perpendicular to each other so that they're always being pulled up on one side and down the other), but also manages to rig rods such that he can make the van fly.
- In Fleeing Earth (Terre en fuite) by François Bordes (AKA Francis Carsac), the second civilization of humanity (after we mostly die out in another Ice Age) is conquered by aliens. When the aliens are defeated using a genetically-engineered virus, they leave behind some of their technology, including their primary means of propulsion in space called "space magnets". Apparently, there are certain energy lines between nearby stars that can be used for space travel by using these "space magnets" to allow a ship to be "pulled" towards a specific star. A ship with a "space magnet" can accelerate to close to 80% of the speed of light. Ships can also maneuver with these drives similar to how sailing ships can be still pushed by the wind even going in a perpendicular direction. There are limitations, however. It is discovered that there is a barrier of sorts at midpoint between the two stars that prevents a ship with a "space magnet" from moving farther (why the drive can't simply be shut off for the time being is not explained). Exceptions include a massive object traveling at very high speeds. This comes into play when the Sun is about to explode, forcing humans to build giant "space magnets" that allow them to move planets, such as Earth and Venus.
- In Tom Swift and the Race to the Moon, the plucky hero's spaceship is driven by "repellatrons." While there is no exhaust, these don't violate the Conservation of Momentum, because they work by pushing remotely against the Earth.
- In Stone by Adam Roberts, reactionless propulsion is achieved by extremely rapid teleportation in infinitesimal steps. This can even be applied to an individual, who can be wrapped in a protective shell, with life-support equipment and a teleportation device, and then sent off to their destination through interstellar space. The speed of this mechanism is affected by gravitational fields, where a stronger field requires more complex calculation (and thus less rapid steps). The reader may notice this sounds exactly like the Stutterdrive mentioned for Sword of the Stars under Video Games. As Stone was published in 2003, and the game in 2006, I can only assume it was half-inched.
- Larry Niven proposed more-or-less this design in his "The Theory and Practice of Teleportation", originally a speech at Boskone in 1969.
- In C. J. Cherryh's Alliance/Union Verse, the Faster-Than-Light Travel drives that are used to enter Hyperspace can, while in normal space, be used to make instantaneous changes in velocity (piling on a second impossibility on top of normal Reactionless Drives).
- The Conjoiner Drive in Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space universe are effectively reactionless drives. While they do spew out plasma capable of cutting through a space station's hull, the Conjoiner drive requires no fuel source to function, as it is a wormhole to an alternate dimension before the Big Bang - the drive simply spews out the matter through the wormhole. However, other propulsion systems avert this, and even the ships powered by the Conjoiner Drive need to carry fuel for their vernier thrusters for docking maneuvers near other ships and stations - though it's implied that the Ramscoop on each Conjoiner engine is used to refuel the regular thrusters.
- The Skylark in E. E. “Doc” Smith's Skylark Series is powered by the direct conversion of matter into energy. This energy isn't jetted out the back; the Skylark simply accelerates.
- Averted early on in Perry Rhodan, whose classic "impulse engine" was basically just a fusion torch drive using proper reaction mass (if still impossibly little of it for the implied thrust values given, which led to a later retcon explaining that the drive had used primitive hyperspace technology to "supercharge" its exhaust all along). The occasional Higher-Tech Species of generally extragalactic origin (to say nothing of the really Sufficiently Advanced Aliens) could play the trope rather more straight even then; post issue-1000 time skip, so did "standard" Galactic starship drives.
- Star Carrier: Ships bigger than 80 meters use an Alcubierre drive to accelerate to speeds fast enough to cross solar systems in hours. Ships smaller than 80 meters can generate a singularity ahead of the ship that allows far greater accelerations: whereas it takes the battle group's capital ships the better part of an Earth day to cross to Mufrid from the Eta Boötis Kuiper Belt, the fighter squadron Admiral Koenig sends ahead for a surprise attack crosses in about an hour and a half.
- On the other hand, gravitic acceleration is still limited by the speed of light, whereas the Alcubierre drive completely cuts off the ship from the normal space-time, folding space in front of the "bubble" and stretching it out behind it, and can accelerate the "bubble" (which is a non-event in space-time) to translight speeds (e.g. a ship using this drive can get to Alpha Centauri in less than 3 days).
- The Stormlight Archive features a magical version of this. Windrunner Radiants can redefine what direction "down" is for them (or anything else they want), allowing them to fly at upwards of 80 mph without any effort on their part.
- In Star Trek, the nacelles may appear to be this at first, except they house the warp coils (for FTL travel), and not the sublight impulse engines. The impulse engines are the red thruster-looking parts (e.g. the one on the back of the Enterprise-D's engineering section), which are a type of fusion rocket.
- Also, Star Trek ships are definitely the "power plant inside" version. It takes a lot to make that little blue (or red) light push the ship forward.
- One of the many ways Cylons in Battlestar Galactica have outstripped their creators technologically is by giving all of their Baseships reactionless drives. In fact, due to the star shape and lack of outward features, it's sometimes unclear which way is their up, down, or forward. Their fighters still use normal engines, presumably due to power/size constraints.
- The Firefly class of merchant space ships does spew a little bit of exhaust when it goes to full burn, but this exhaust is extremely rarefied and appears static against the backdrop of interplanetary space. Given the spacecraft's lack of internal space for storing propellant, the exhaust may merely be the (unaccelerated) fuel expended to power the Reactionless Drive.
- In Babylon 5, Minbari and Centauri use gravity drives to propel their ships without expelling matter out the back. Given that they provide Artificial Gravity technology to humans after the Earth Civil War, it can be assumed that future EarthForce ships will be using gravity drives as well.
- The various reactionless drives in GURPS: Spaceships are most obviously useful in that they save a tremendous amount of space because even the best reaction engines require a large fraction of the ship's mass in order to reach useful speeds. All of them require a great deal of power to operate, but not nearly enough to explain the thrust through anything but superscience.
- The "ether propeller" of Space 1889.
- Later versions of Traveller used reactionless "thruster plates" for spaceship movement.
- The Ion Drive engines of Starfire are probably reactionless drives — they let a starship instantly switch back-and-forth between a dead stop and 10% of the speed of light at the flick of a switch, so they definitely ignore pesky details of physics like inertia — but we are never told outright whether they spew exhaust or not.
- In Warhammer 40,000, some of the more technologically advanced races have them. The Necrons do in addition to being the only race to possess true FTL travel as opposed to using the warp. The Eldar and Dark Eldar may possibly have them, while other races do not.
- In Sword of the Stars, the Liir have what's called a Stutterdrive, which teleports their ships an infinitesimal amount millions of times a second. They use no thrust and have no inertia, and their ships are not affected by in-game techs that affect thrust.
- This is also out of necessity, as their ships are filled with water and trying to move them through normal means would be an engineering nightmare. However, they do have a disadvantage when maneuvering near large celestial bodies, as gravity wells makes teleportation calculations more complex, slowing down the ship.
- They still use thrusters to rotate. Also, if the stutterdrive is destroyed in battle, they are able to use the thrusters to move slowly. It is also not explained why, when the drive is destroyed, they keep drifting, even though they should stop dead.
- The Tarka normally have reaction drives, but their hyperdrives can be enhanced to allow them to maneuver at subluminal speeds without the use of reaction drives. This leaves space in the aft section to add more and/or heavier turrets.
- The Morrigi use gravity manipulation for their propulsion. They are Precursors who used to have very advanced tech, though.
- One of the drive systems in Ascendancy is a gravity drive which works by projecting gravitons in front of the ship, which then pull the ship forward. Presumably, the gravitons are removed after the ship passes, otherwise, they would then pull it backwards. It should be noted that this is by far not the fastest engine in the game and has no advantages other than be slightly faster than the one preceding it.
- The Normandy (both of them) in the Mass Effect games uses a "Tantalus drive" that propels the ship by creating mass concentrations in front of the ship that it falls into through gravity, principally for stealth purposes to avoid the use of heat-emitting thrusters. This has several limitations, chiefly that it also involves storing the Normandy's waste heat in internal sinks instead of radiating it, which must eventually be vented or they'll cook the crew. It's also extremely expensive: The oversized element zero core required gave the Normandy SR-1, a frigate, the price tag of a cruiser, and the SR-2's is even bigger.
- In The Inexplicable Adventures of Bob! the Nemesites have been shown using both Bussard Ramscoops and some sort of Reactionless Drive called a "Grav Drive." Much of their technology is based on gravity manipulation, and this is apparently just one more aspect of it.
- The greater powers of Orion's Arm have access to 3 kinds of reactionless drives for their spaceships, all largely based on the Alcubierre drive (see Real Life section below) but limited to just below the speed of light (attempting to hit c allegedly causes void bubble collapse). Like Alcubierre drive, they depend on negative mass, and as per the setting's guidelines, elaborate justification has been provided as to their plausibility. Thematically, the lesser gods' Displacement and Halo Drives (pictured above) have only disposable engines located inside void bubbles and magnetically or gravitationally coupled to an external ship, since at their level, the only way to take down said bubbles is to destroy them chaotically. The highest archailects' Void Drives however are true warp craft, with entire ships or fleets being contained within a void bubble and re-entering normal space smoothly upon reaching their destination.
- Most Science Fiction spaceships of the Flying Saucer variety tend to fit this trope. The location of the engine is never explicit as the saucer shape tends to be uniform around the perimeter. Infrequently, there may be signs of an engine at the bottom of the saucer but that's usually seen operating only in landings or takeoff. Saucer ships always seem to rotate for no practical reason. Rotation does not provide forward thrust in space, and the inner habitat area of the ship is not rotating since no centrifugal force is depicted. Thus, the rotating outer hull of such a saucer may be the housing of some sort of reactionless drive.