Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Sneeking in on Cat's Feet



The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

-- Carl Sandburg, 1916


This story sort of snuck into the media and disappeared almost as soon as it arrived. Not what you'd call too exciting, unless you're a Star Trek fan, but in my opinion, one of the greatest breakthoughs of the last 100 years, if the story is to be believed. Basically it's the validation of impulse drive -- a thruster that doesn't consume mass. (It consumes plenty of energy, but no mass) The mechanism has been observed for awhile. Essentially based on an asymmetric microwave resonant cavity. Microwave energy is pumped into the cavity, and a small amount of thrust is created due to the asymmetrical shape of the cavity. The microwaves are completely contained within the cavity, so the thrust isn't caused by microwave leakage. Instead the mechanism appears to be related to the variation of wave velocity within the cavity related to the cavity's width or diameter. NASA's thruster used low power and produced about 30 to 50 micro-newtons of thrust. Not very much, but measurable none the less. You can read about it here. To me there are two interesting aspects to this story. (1) A federal science agency just published data on a scientifically implausible device, and they don't exactly know why it works, but they know it works. and (2) a device has been demonstrated that most scientists would claim is impossible, but works just the same, which means that we are on the verge of a fundamental breakthrough in physics (or at least mechanics). This is how science works. A scientist runs an experiment and gets results that conflict with his theory. It's in that conflict that new theories arise.

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