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I love it when scientists discover some new phenomenon and find a way to harness it without actually understanding *why* it works.
Things get even better when the effect being harnessed appears to violate the laws of physics as we understand them.
Well right now we're seeing just such a situation, in the form of a new propulsion system which appears to violate Newton's third law of motion by creating a reactive force without applying any primary force, in the vacuum of space.
Yes, by simply creating a powerful beam of microwave energy, the new engine technology can turn energy into a force without accelerating a mass in order to create a reaction. Sounds crazy but it works.
Conventional rocket motors work by expelling a jet of matter at high velocity in order to create a reactive force.
Even the far more advanced ion-engine used more recently for interplanetary probes, such as the Dawn Probe which began to orbit dwarf-planet Ceres earlier this year, still rely on Newtonian physics to operate. The emit a high-velocity stream of xenon ions (which have mass) and it is the reaction to this stream that propels the craft forward.
The microwave thruster (EM engine) that NASA's Johnson Space Center have been working on emits no mass and therefore, ought not work.
NASA's engine should produce no propulsion because all it does is fire a beam of microwaves and microwaves do not have mass. Although these waves may disturb subatomic particles (because they are electromagnetic in nature), there should still be no reactive force because any matter affected by such waves is simply rocked back and forth -- not actually propelled in a given direction. The best analogy is the effect of waves on a body floating in mid-ocean. Those waves will not impart any net movement to a floating object. If the movements produced by the wave motion are integrated over time, they cancel out. The object bobs up and down but goes nowhere.
Given our present understanding of physics, the microwave thruster ought not work -- yet it does. NASA's own experiments have been duplicated and verified by an independent team at the Dresden University of Technology -- thus significantly reducing the chances that we're just seeing some "bad science".
This new form of propulsion technology could be a real game-changer for ultra-long distance space travel -- not because it will provide faster speeds but because it requires no physical fuel -- only energy.
Traditional propulsion systems have all required that a supply of some type of fuel (be it chemicals or a gas like xenon) was carried along and when that fuel ran out then there was no longer anything to throw out the back and create the necessary Newtonian reactive force so the thrust stopped. The EM engine requires no fuel to be carried -- just a source of energy that can be used to create the microwaves involved.
This opens the door to nuclear-powered thrust systems or probes that can use solar-cells to capture sunlight/starlight to provide the necessary propulsion to keep them accelerating through the ether.
But how does this seemingly impossible engine work?
Well as I sad at the beginning of this column -- nobody knows. The best theories to date suggest that there are quantum effects involved and others have proposed the existence of yet to be discovered subatomic particles which react in previously unobserved ways with the beam of microwave energy.
So right now the situation is just like when your mother drives her car. She doesn't know how it works -- but that doesn't stop her taking advantage of the fact that it does.
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