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Updated: NASA may have just accidentally broke the laws of physics

Updated: NASA may have just accidentally broke the laws of physics
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Updated 5/1/15:
NASA has completed the first test of an EmDrive in a vacuum chamber and confirmed that it still provides thrust. This rules out several theories about how the EmDrive works and leaves the physics of how it functions up in the air. However, it also leaves the door open for faster and cheaper space exploration in the future.

Original story:
When it comes to space travel, we've barely just begun to explore the final frontier. Sure we've put men on the moon, sent probes to Mars and other planets, and we have a spacecraft (Voyager 1) leaving the solar system. But given the vast reaches of space, we're like a toddler leaving the house for the first time: we've barely reached the front porch, much less entered the yard.

There are a lot of obstacles to space travel, not least of which is that space is a very dangerous place for humans. However, an even bigger problem is one that seems simple at first: fuel. Space travel requires tons of it, literally.

At its most basic, a rocket engine is a controlled explosion with the force of the blast channeled in one direction. As Newton's third law of motion (usually paraphrased as "for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction") tells us, an explosion in one direction will drive the rocket engine, and anything attached to it, in the opposite direction.

Unfortunately, creating explosions takes fuel. Just to get the sadly retired Space Shuttle off the ground required more than 3.8 million pounds (1,900 tons) of solid and liquid fuel. Watch this jaw-dropping video if you've forgotten what that launch looks like. And that's just to get to low-Earth orbit. If you want to get to the Moon, Mars or out of the solar system, that's something else again.

Even though objects have no weight in space, they still have mass. It takes a lot of fuel to get a spacecraft to any serious level of speed, and don't forget that you need fuel to decelerate when you get to the end of your trip. The added mass of fuel for deceleration means you need more fuel for acceleration, and so on.

Now, there are already some improvements, such as ion engines. Instead of igniting a bunch of fuel in one burst to accelerate quickly and then coast the rest of the trip, ion engines endlessly shoot a little ionized gas out at very high speeds.

True, it takes it a while to get the spaceship going, but over long distances it can get to much higher speeds than a conventional rocket. But it still requires a fuel tank, and the farther you want to go the more fuel it needs. Which is why a new development has some people very excited.

Normally when you hear about an invention that "breaks the laws of physics," such as cold fusion or perpetual motion energy generators, they fall apart as soon as real scientists get close. This one, however, was actually tested and verified by NASA.

It's called the Cannae Drive, and Guido Fetta is the inventor. It also has a cousin called the EmDrive created by a Roger Shawyer, which was allegedly successfully tested in China.

Instead of using fuel for propellant, the Cannae Drive fires microwaves into an enclosed chamber and somehow creates thrust. Here's what NASA has to say about it:

"Test results indicate that the RF resonant cavity thruster design, which is unique as an electric propulsion device, is producing a force that is not attributable to any classical electromagnetic phenomenon and therefore is potentially demonstrating an interaction with the quantum vacuum virtual plasma."

I think that's a fancy way of saying, "It works, but we don't know how." In fact, there are lots of theories about how it works, but no one knows for sure yet. So, it might not actually be breaking the laws of physics; it might just be using a loophole we don't know about yet.

Still, the fact is it works, at least at a small scale. Whether it could propel a spacecraft isn't known, and given that it works like an ion engine (slow and steady), means it won't be useful for getting rockets off the ground.

Once in space, however, if it worked as planned, you could get around the solar system in weeks instead of months. I don't know about you, but I'm ready to see Jupiter in person.

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Source: iO9
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