Homeopathic space travel isn’t rocket science

Oscillococcinum — the homeopathic flu remedy concocted from duck or goose liver — doesn’t work. Its proponents may disagree vehemently, but the evidence for its lack of efficacy is compelling. In this it shares a direct parallel with the latest developments in propulsion technology.

Space, as Douglas Adams observed, is big. And the cost of getting from one place to another is — petrol price hikes aside — astronomical.

But the experimental EmDrive has sparked hopes of slashing those costs, leading space agencies such as Nasa and the China National Space Administration to build prototypes for testing — here on Earth and, perhaps some day, in orbit.

Cheap and efficient space travel would be a golden goose for any nation that cracked it, giving it a head start on the race to neighbouring planets and the mineral riches of the asteroid belt, before presumably ushering in a new age of interstellar exploration. And great hope is invested in the EmDrive.

Traditionally, propulsion has relied on Newton’s third law of motion — for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction — and the all-important conservation of momentum that follows from it: when bodies in a closed system interact, the total momentum remains constant provided no external force acts on the system.


So, a rocket is able to move in space without having anything to push against by forcefully expelling part of itself — ignited fuel — in one direction, which propels the rocket in the opposite direction.

A useful way to demonstrate this is to put on a pair of roller skates, pick up a bowling ball and then hurl it away from you. This would cause you to roll backwards, without having pushed against anything.

On Earth, with gravity and friction acting on objects in motion, you would stop rolling fairly quickly. But up beyond the planet’s pull there is nothing to slow you down, so the more bowling balls you throw, the faster you zoot along on your space skates. In space, as in life, however, you will eventually run out of bowling balls.

This is why interplanetary space travel is expensive: you need to take a massive amount of fuel (bowling balls) with you to a) get up into and then out of orbit; b) accelerate to get to where you’re going as quickly as possible; and then c) flip the direction your rockets (roller skates) are facing so that you can decelerate enough to slip delicately into the orbit of your destination planet instead of overshooting or smashing into it.

This is where the EmDrive comes in. Short for electromagnetic field drive, the EmDrive is a fuel-free engine that is purported to produce thrust by bouncing an electromagnetic signal around inside a cavity within the engine — without ejecting any mass at all. No balls required.

So not only would you save money on fuel, but you’d save on your total mass, too, as you sailed your ship sveltely across the solar system.

Before being taken seriously by Nasa and the like, the EmDrive had been ridiculed by establishment physicists because it supposedly violated Newton’s third law — by not expelling anything, so no conservation of momentum. It was bunkum, they said. Quackery. A wild goose chase. The equivalent of strapping into roller skates while holding a microwave, and instead of throwing it anywhere, just pressing the “reheat” button and waiting.

This is reminiscent of the critics of the OG rocket scientist Robert Goddard, who was mocked by The New York Times in a 1920 editorial, which said of his ideas that thrust could be produced in the vacuum of space: “He seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.” (The paper eventually issued an apology, a day after the launch of Apollo 11, in 1969.)

Undeterred and encouraged by history, proponents of the EmDrive have built prototypes that seemed to show a minuscule amount of thrust being created by the physics-busting engine. This hint of success has in turn prompted further study, and even plans for orbital tests by the leading space agencies.

But results from new experiments presented at the Space Propulsion 2018 conference in Seville, Spain, three weeks ago, have poured some very cold water on their dreams.

Martin Tajmar and his team from the Institute of Aerospace Engineering at the Technische Universität Dresden showed that in extensive testing of the EmDrive, no thrust had been created at all. Previous positive results they attributed to interactions with the Earth’s magnetic field.

And so the golden goose of space travel is finding itself not just reheated, but properly cooked. Because, just like oscillococcinum — the homeopathic remedy that has been shown to be no more effective than sugar pills — the EmDrive does not work.*

* The Mail & Guardian looks forward to issuing an apology to the creators of the EmDrive in 2069.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Matthew Du Plessis
Matthew du Plessis is the Mail & Guardian's former managing editor and chair of the Adamela Trust. He writes on the environment, dinosaurs, particle accelerators, evolutionary anthropology, genomics and super-continental fields of molten lava.

Related stories

SA professor enters ranks of Royal elite

Salim Abdool Karim joins Newton, Hawking and Einstein as a member of an extraordinary society

Bionic mushrooms are a thing now

Scientists have the technology (and apparently the inclination) to make fungus better, stronger, faster

New light on old civilisations

Scientists are remapping the stories of ancient civilisations by shooting them with lasers

Bug evolution thrown into Chaos

Super-strains of bacteria need a new nemesis, and scientists reckon they’ve found one

Laziness: Lifeline or death knell?

Sluggish snails prevailed, but Homo erectus may have died out because, honestly, why bother?

Set course for the heart of the Sun

They promise the earth and never deliver, but sometimes the world’s leaders give us the sun, the moon and the stars
Advertising

Subscribers only

Toxic power struggle hits public works

With infighting and allegations of corruption and poor planning, the department’s top management looks like a scene from ‘Survivor’

Free State branches gun for Ace

Parts of the provincial ANC will target their former premier, Magashule, and the Free State PEC in a rolling mass action campaign

More top stories

Vitamin therapy is for drips

It may be marketed by influencers, but intravenous vitamin therapy is not necessary and probably not worth the hype, experts say

Facebook, Instagram indiscriminately flag #EndSars posts as fake news

Fact-checking is appropriate but the platforms’ scattershot approach has resulted in genuine information and messages about Nigerians’ protest against police brutality being silenced

Murder of anti-mining activist emboldens KZN community

Mam’Ntshangase was described as a fierce critic of mining and ambassador for land rights.

Unite with Nigeria’s ‘Speak Up’ generation protesting against police brutality

Photos of citizens draped in the bloodied flag have spread around the world in the month the country should be celebrating 60 years of independence
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday