A large model rocket lauches from the desert in a burst of smoke and dust

Sorry: We still need propellant.

In tonight’s video, Glove & Boots share 10 facts about US presidents, then imagine how the Internet might have reacted.

You may have seen some buzz on the Internet or even in the mainstream media about a seemingly impossible microwave-powered space drive that had been “proven” by a team at NASA. A typical article came from Wired.co.uk, “NASA validates ‘impossible’ space drive:”

British scientist Roger Shawyer has been trying to interest people in his EmDrive for some years through his company SPR Ltd. 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. [...] As Wired.co.uk reported, this happened last year when a Chinese team built its own EmDrive and confirmed that it produced 720 mN (about 72 grams) of thrust, enough for a practical satellite thruster. Such a thruster could be powered by solar electricity, eliminating the need for the supply of propellant that occupies up to half the launch mass of many satellites. The Chinese work attracted little attention; it seems that nobody in the West believed in it.

The Nasa team based at the Johnson Space Centre [...] spent six days setting up test equipment followed by two days of experiments with various configurations. These tests included using a ‘null drive’ similar to the live version but modified so it would not work, and using a device which would produce the same load on the apparatus to establish whether the effect might be produced by some effect unrelated to the actual drive. They also turned the drive around the other way to check whether that had any effect.

But writing for Discover’s Out There, Corey S. Powell spoke with scientists who think the new engine is dubious at best.

Everything in science is open to questioning, of course, but nobody is going to throw out all the textbooks on the say-so of a single inventor trying to raise money for his company, SPR Ltd. [...] Then Guido Fetta (a self-described “sales and marketing executive with more than 20 years of experience in the chemical, pharmaceutical and food ingredient industries”) built a third version of the EmDrive, renamed the Cannae Drive. [...] A number of publications that should have known better threw caution to the wind.

Perhaps we should take a long cool drink at this point. Let’s start with the “NASA validates” part. NASA is a huge agency, with more than 18,000 employees. The testing was done by five NASA employees in a lab devoted to exploring unorthodox propulsion ideas. [...] Still, science is science: What matters are data, not motivations or semantics. Did White et al actually validate Fetta’s version of the EmDrive? [...] The methodology description makes it unclear how much of the testing took place in a vacuum—essential for measuring a subtle thrust effect. The total amount of energy consumed seems to have been far more than the amount of measured thrust, meaning there was plenty of extra energy bouncing around that could have been a source of error.

Worst of all is this statement from the paper: ‘Thrust was observed on both test articles, even though one of the test articles was de>signed with the expectation that it would not produce thrust.’ In other words, the Cannae Drive worked when it was set up correctly—but it worked just as well when it was intentionally disabled set up incorrectly. Somehow the NASA researchers report this as a validation, rather than invalidation, of the device.

It looks like popular science journalism fell down on the job … again.

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Model rocket photo by Steve Jurvetson and released under a Creative Commons license.