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NASA's test of 'impossible' space drive sparks heated debate

Mars from the Hubble telescope
Mars from the Hubble telescope
NASA (public domain)

Ever since an announcement was made that NASA engineers at the Johnson Spaceflight Center had tested a space drive that uses no fuel and apparently violates the laws of physics, a fierce debate has erupted in the media. Typical in the “it’s bogus” column was Jordon Golson who wrote a Friday piece in Wired suggesting that a device that breaks the law of physics is likely impossible, quoting an impressive list of scientists who agree. In the “it really might work” column was David Hambling, writing for Wired.UK, who purports to answer the questions of skeptics.

The core of the disagreement between the skeptics and the proponents of the space drive, which is said to use microwaves to generate thrust, revolves around the validity of the JSC experiment. Golson suggests that there was an error in the experiment that could explain the apparent thrust. Hambling, on the other hand, asserts that the test rig was carefully designed to account for any outside influences, even the movement of waves in the Gulf of Mexico, some distance away.

Both sides agree that far more experiments are going to be required before the space drive is either confirmed or, as the Mythbusters might say, busted. The way science works is that a new experimental result has to be replicated repeatedly before it becomes widely accepted, especially one that seems to rewrite the laws of physics. Versions of the drive have already been tested in Britain and China. Tests are already planned at NASA Glenn, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and perhaps the Applied Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins.

As for the question of whether the drive, even if confirmed, would prove practical, apparently NASA did a study that imagined one propelling an eight month round trip to Mars that includes a 70 day stay on the Martian surface. The trick is developing a two megawatt nuclear power source, a challenging technological hurdle to say the least. The spacecraft would weigh 90 tons since it would not carry any fuel. In theory, then, it could be launched all at once by a second or third generation heavy life Space Launch System rocket.

Thus, while the space drive may be a mirage, the possibility that it might work requires that it be given further attention.