Friday, August 22, 2014

Sci Fi Friday: The Science Story of the Century You Probably Have Heard Nothing About


EmDrive, illustration by Elvis Popovic
I scratch my head as to how how journalists decide what's newsworthy. Why do people living in caves know about Justin Beiber's legal troubles yet few have heard about NASA's recent success with a new propulsion system that could take a manned ship to Mars and back in eight months?

I heard about this a while back when the Chinese announced that Prof Yang Juan had successfully shown that British scientist Roger Shawyer's so called "EmDrive" created thrust without a propellant. The system uses electricity to generate microwaves that bounce around a closed space and generates thrust. The implications are huge. Panels could convert star energy into electricity - perpetual space travel fueled by the stars.

But scientists in the west seemed less than excited by China's news. It was less than a blip on the radar of mainstream media.

This is how Wired.co.uk explained Shawyer's system and what critics have said about it:
Shawyer claims the EmDrive converts electric power into thrust, without the need for any propellant by bouncing microwaves around in a closed container. He has built a number of demonstration systems, but critics reject his relativity-based theory and insist that, according to the law of conservation of momentum, it cannot work. (wired.co.uk, "NASA Validates Impossible Space Drive," July 31, 2014, David Hambling.)
EmDrive, Image: SPR Ltd.
Fortunately, an American, Guido Fetta, had a similar propulsion system that was pitched to NASA and they finally ran the tests on the Cannae drive. NASA's test of the engine they called "impossible" showed that not only does it work, but it would allow humans to travel freely about the solar system without the necessity of carrying a liquid propellant.

Here's a bit about going to Mars: 
The Nasa paper projects a 'conservative' manned mission to Mars from Earth orbit, with a 90-ton spacecraft driven by the new technology. Using a 2-megawatt nuclear power source, it can develop 800 newtons (180 pounds) of thrust. The entire mission would take eight months, including a 70-day stay on Mars. (wired.co.uk, "10 Questions about NASA's 'impossible' Space Drive Answered", Aug. 7, 2014, David Hambling.)

What the what?

Here's something that really gets me about this story. Scientists believe that Shawyer's science defies commonly understood laws of physics. But they have yet to prove that it doesn't work! 

So multiple experiments by different organizations are able to create a machine that defies the current understanding of physics yet it's still "not proven"?! And as far as I can tell, getting little attention in mainstream media (but being talked about in the science world).

It seems to me that scientists should be excited about this. Physicists were jumping up and down (literally) when CERN announced that they're "almost positive" that they've discovered the Higgs Boson, one of the holy grails of physics (and the main reason they spent billions on the LHC). Don't get me wrong. The work being done at the LHC is cool stuff (so awesome I included it as a plot point in my first book, Emily's House).

But come on guys. You have a few (relatively) tiny experiments which defy your current laws. That means there is new physics to understand here. And in the grand scheme of human existence, potentially finding a viable way to propel ourselves off this dying rock and into space in search of a new home is pretty fucking exciting. And useful.

What do you think? Am I celebrating prematurely? Do you think this could be the answer to our question of how to get to space?

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