Thursday, May 7, 2015

A New low for 'Eagleworks' and Space Journalism

Well folks, it's back like a bad dream. Another summer, another blizzard of media hype for a crackpot propulsion concept out of the self-named 'Eagleworks' lab at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Around this time last year I posted a rant about how they were using the conference structure to effectively 'publish' a paper without peer-review, the paper in question being hosted on an AIAA server and being typeset as an AIAA paper, all while the AIAA claimed to have 'not published' the seriously flawed work. The central outlandish claim was that they had found an object (I do not glorify it with the title 'thruster') which produced thrust without using any propellant--a 'reactionless' drive. The true fact that any such device would contradict the basic laws of physics was also widely reported, but instead of using this knowledge to come to the correct conclusion that the measurements were flawed, the media instead decided to pan the conservation of momentum, an unorthodox but evidently acceptable target for tabloid hatred. 

Of course even a cursory review of the conference paper revealed gaping flaws. Among many others was that measurements of micronewton thrusts were performed at atmospheric pressures! For those who are not engineers, a micronewton is a very small amount of force. If you softly blow on a piece of paper, you are still generating about 10-100 MILLInewtons of force (1 millinewton = 1000 micronewtons), and so the idea of performing such sensitive measurements under atmospheric pressure is laughable. This is likely the reason Eagleworks, in true crackpot fashion, obfuscated this fact by changing their abstract to falsely say the tests were performed in vacuum conditions when they weren't. 

Although little more than a quick laugh in the real space community, Eagleworks' nonsense infected social media for a couple of weeks. When I came to Purdue University last fall, I even found undergraduates (in Engineering) who told me their greatest ambition was to work for Eagleworks and Harold White--a dismal thing to hear from what is supposedly a top Aerospace engineering school. And now it's back in what has become the third episode in this saga of ridiculous claims and media hype. 

The newest episode is the most pathetic yet. Faced with the challenge of coming up with yet another piece of garbage to float around the ocean of public discourse and evidently failing to come up with anything original, Eagleworks has instead decided to sew together, in what resembles a Frankenstein's Monster of propulsion claims, their two previous pieces of nonsense regarding 'warp drive' and their 'reactionless' drive--that's right folks, a reactionless warp drive! Instead of even dignifying those of us who work on legitimate propulsion research with something resembling what a real researcher might do, e.g. submit a paper to a conference or give a talk, they've decided to spit in the face of the entire community by posting an announcement on an online forum.

From the media hype however, you'd think this amateur, non NASA affiliated forum might as well have been a major aerospace journal! Left and right there were claims that "NASA has gotten one step closer to warp drive" or that they had now somehow validated their "reactionless" drive. Perhaps the most widely cited is this post on the unaffiliated The conceited and almost offensively wrong article is simply too bad to not address, and actually I found that the main arguments against Eagleworks' nonsense can be summarized nicely by rebutting the ridiculous claims made in this post. The rest of this article will just be quotes from their article with anything anyone with a real background in physics would say following the quote


Thrust measurements of the EM Drive defy classical physics’ expectations that such a closed (microwave) cavity should be unusable for space propulsion because of the law of conservation of momentum.

So they must be wrong. Classical physics in the classical regime is not debatable. Momentum conservation in any measurable regime is not debatable. If you find your measurements disagree with momentum conservation, they are wrong. Period. 

Last summer, NASA Eagleworks – an advanced propulsion research group led by Dr. Harold “Sonny” White at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) – made waves throughout the scientific and technical communities when the group presented their test results on July 28-30, 2014, at the 50th AIAA/ASME/SAE/ASEE Joint Propulsion Conference in Cleveland, Ohio.

And it was the worst piece of nominally serious work in propulsion I've ever seen. It was a laughing stock within the major university laboratory where I was an engineer and even the AIAA did not want to take responsibility for it, denying it was ever published by them.

Those results related to experimental testing of an EM Drive – a concept that originated around 2001 when a small UK company, Satellite Propulsion Research Ltd (SPR), under Roger J. Shawyer, started a Research and Development (R&D) program.

And it was a crackpot idea which the British Government foolishly spent money trying to develop to no avail. Shawyer is not an engineer and his unpublished 'paper' on this concept is ridiculous. 

This lack of expulsion of propellant from the drive was met with initial skepticism within the scientific community because this lack of propellant expulsion would leave nothing to balance the change in the spacecraft’s momentum if it were able to accelerate.

This is strictly speaking wrong. EM waves carry momentum, and so they could in principle be used for propulsion, but the amount of momentum they carry is so tiny compared with the power required to produce them that it is an extremely inefficient way to do business. This is called a Photon Rocket and has been used for years as a way to understand the limitations of propulsion systems. 

However, in 2010, Prof. Juan Yang in China began publishing about her research into EM Drive technology, culminating in her 2012 paper reporting higher input power (2.5kW) and tested thrust (720mN) levels of an EM Drive.

Her paper is also garbage, published in a low-quality Chinese journal, and has a multitude of elementary errors. If you even take the numbers cited in this quote and calculate the thrust-to-power ratio, you will find it exceeds that of a photon rocket, equivalent to getting energy from nowhere, an absurd and obviously false conclusion. 

Dr. White proposed that the EM Drive’s thrust was due to the Quantum Vacuum (the quantum state with the lowest possible energy) behaving like propellant ions behave in a MagnetoHydroDynamics drive (a method electrifying propellant and then directing it with magnetic fields to push a spacecraft in the opposite direction) for spacecraft propulsion.

And as usual Dr. White is speaking nonsensical technobabble. There are no ions in the qft vacuum, and the charged particles which are produced disappear so fast that they could never even feel an applied electric field much less be accelerated through one. The qft vacuum is also, like everything else in the universe, relativistic, which is to say you can't really push against it. For White's claim to be true, all of physics starting with Newton would have to be wrong. There is so much evidence to the contrary, it is appealing to suggest that it is instead Eagleworks' shoddy laboratory skills which has produced this erroneous result.  

This model was also met with criticism in the scientific community because the Quantum Vacuum cannot be ionized and is understood to be “frame-less” – meaning you cannot “push” against it, as required for momentum.

oh wow, they actual get something right. So now you should conclude that since relativity is known to be correct, this explanation is garbage. 

The tests reported by Dr. White’s team in July 2014 were not conducted in a vacuum, and none of the tests reported by Prof. Yang in China or Mr. Shawyer in the UK were conducted in a vacuum either.

you wouldn't know this from their abstract, but yes, this is likely to be one source of error. On a side note, not knowing you have to test microthrust devices in vacuum is the sort of abysmal ignorance that would be expected of a freshman in the lower half of his or her physics 101 class, not the leader of a NASA "research" group. 

The scientific community met these NASA tests with skepticism and a number of physicists proposed that the measured thrust force in the US, UK, and China tests was more likely due to (external to the EM Drive cavity) natural thermal convection currents arising from microwave heating (internal to the EM Drive cavity).

To just name one source of possible error (probably the most egregious). This DOES NOT mean this is the ONLY source of error. Proper microthrust measurements take months if not years for new devices. If you get the result that your device violates known physics, you should check your apparatus because there is a mistake. If the device is not in vacuum you are not measuring microthrust, you are measuring small perturbations on the device due to the environment. 

However, Paul March, an engineer at NASA Eagleworks, recently reported in’s forum (on a thread now over 500,000 views) that NASA has successfully tested their EM Drive in a hard vacuum – the first time any organization has reported such a successful test.

Could you imagine if this was true? "Hey guys, I just found out all of physics starting from Newton must be wrong! Should we try and retake our measurements and, if we find they're good, submit our revolutionary findings to a peer-reviewed journal?" "Nah, let's just post something on an online forum, it's basically the same thing."

To this end, NASA Eagleworks has now nullified the prevailing hypothesis that thrust measurements were due to thermal convection.

No they haven't. A couple of idiots have just posted some piece of crackpot garbage on a forum. If this were a real lab we'd like to see some kind of data first. Knowing that Eagleworks disingenuously makes things up or obfuscates their flawed procedures to support their absurd claims however, I would not trust anything they produce. 

A community of enthusiasts, engineers, and scientists on several continents joined forces on the EM Drive forumto thoroughly examine the experiments and discuss theories of operation of the EM Drive.

I didn't wade through the >100 page sewer that was that forum post, but I'm guessing everything was as hilarious and wrong as White's bizarre claims. I also like how we're now giving "enthusiasts"--i.e. amateurs--the same amount of say in this as engineers and scientists. Though if these were Eagleworks' "engineers" and "scientists" the amateurs might actually be better than them. 

This synergy between contributors and NASA has resulted in several contributions to the body of knowledge about the EM Drive. 

Yep, advanced propulsion is officially in the toilet. Of course they don't name a single contribution made by the amateur forum posters, although if they had it wouldn't matter since everything involved in this refuse is about as legitimate as Douglas Adams' Impossibility Drive--and not half as entertaining. 

The group has given consideration to whether the experimental measurements of thrust force were the result of an artifact. Despite considerable effort within the forum to dismiss the reported thrust as an artifact, the EM Drive results have yet to be falsified.

Probably because these are amateurs and not professional engineers. If you want to really claim acceptance you should submit to peer-review (whence the wonderful phrase "peer-review or it didn't happen"). From how the article sounds it seems like a lot of the amateurs had the good sense to understand Eagleworks' claims are nonsense though, so that makes me feel a little better. Lastly, it's not the amateurs' (or anyone else's) responsibility to "falsify" the Eagleworks nonsense, it is Eagleworks' job to prove it. If they are doing ridiculous things like testing for microthrust without using a vacuum it is exceedingly likely their results are garbage because they are obviously incompetent. 

After consistent reports of thrust measurements from EM Drive experiments in the US, UK, and China – at thrust levels several thousand times in excess of a photon rocket, and now under hard vacuum conditions – the question of where the thrust is coming from deserves serious inquiry.

No it doesn't. It deserves to be mocked and shamed. It's an absurd degree of professional incompetence and ignorance coupled with conceited media showboating which makes me weep for humanity. All of these 'experiments' are riddled with basic flaws and have produced widely divergent results, which are inconsistent not only with all physics but with each other. There was nothing in the claims of Shawyer, Guido Fetta, the Chinese (I don't remember their names and honestly don't care), and Eageworks the first time. There still isn't anything except a new low for NASA's biggest embarrassment and yet another insult to those of us who put in a lot of effort and sacrifice a lot of time to try and produce real propulsion devices. 


The article goes on for a while after this, but honestly I'm so tired and so depressed that I have to stop here, shut down my computer, and walk to the liquor store to buy a bottle of Bourbon. After actually reading this drivel I'm going to have to spend the rest of the night drinking and weeping for my nation's sick and failing national civilian space agency. 

To the hope of better times ahead...

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