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Stellar Travel on the Cheap?

As any Star Trek fan knows, the interstellar spaceships of the future, navigating swiftly from galaxy to galaxy, will travel at warp speed (faster than the speed of light); but such things, we are told, are reserved for science fiction. Nothing like that is achievable in this 3D realm of Newtonian physics. But, then again, we now hear that warp speed, or something very much like it, may be possible after all, and traveling to the stars could be a lot easier then we have been led to believe. Now, thanks to a strange device called the EM Drive, all of that and even antigravity travel here on Earth may be possible.

The 1999 creation of British engineer Roger Shawyer, the EM Drive was first dismissed by most scientists as impossible—a clear violation of Newton’s third law of motion. But after reports that Chinese scientists at the Northwestern Polytechnic University in Xi’an had tested it successfully, NASA decided to try it for themselves. To the great surprise, and even consternation, of nearly everyone and, as now widely reported, the device worked. Nobody has been able to explain it yet, but the basic facts appear indisputable. In the years since NASA began its experiments, many independent researchers have also replicated the drive. Now there is news that a peer-reviewed scientific paper with positive findings will be forthcoming shortly from NASA and its Eagleworks Laboratories at Houston’s Johnson Space center.

When Shawyer made his first proposal, he stated that, according to Einstein’s theory of relativity, electricity could be converted into microwaves, which could be fired inside a cone-shaped chamber. The result, he said, was that the particles exerted more force on one end of the chamber than the other, thus generating thrust. The microwaves could be powered by solar energy, so no fuel was needed. In the vacuum of space, the smallest of thrust can move the largest of objects, which can, theoretically, be accelerated to speeds near that of light. Since no fuel would be needed, spacecraft could be much smaller and lighter. The moon could be reached in minutes, and Mars in weeks.

The whole thing is impossible, say detractors. For a thruster to gain momentum in one direction, propellant, they say, must be expelled in the other direction, just like Isaac Newton said. The principle is called “the conservation of momentum.” It is worth remembering, however, that at one time, many very well informed individuals believed the world was flat and that if we traveled too far, we would fall off the edge. Modern-day flat-Earthers, we suspect, may be those who deny the existence of forces that they cannot personally imagine.