Warp Drive May Be More Feasible Than Thought, Scientists Say
A warp drive to achieve faster-than-light travel — a concept popularized in television's Star Trek — may not be as unrealistic as once thought, scientists say.
A warp drive would manipulate space-time itself to move a starship, taking advantage of a loophole in the laws of physics that prevent anything from moving faster than light. A concept for a real-life warp drive was suggested in 1994 by Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre, however subsequent calculations found that such a device would require prohibitive amounts of energy.
Now physicists say that adjustments can be made to the proposed warp drive that would enable it to run on significantly less energy, potentially brining the idea back from the realm of science fiction into science.
"There is hope," Harold "Sonny" White of NASA's Johnson Space Center said here Friday (Sept. 14) at the 100 Year Starship Symposium, a meeting to discuss the challenges of interstellar spaceflight.
An Alcubierre warp drive would involve a football-shape spacecraft attached to a large ring encircling it. This ring, potentially made of exotic matter, would cause space-time to warp around the starship, creating a region of contracted space in front of it and expanded space behind. [Star Trek's Warp Drive: Are We There Yet? | Video]
Meanwhile, the starship itself would stay inside a bubble of flat space-time that wasn't being warped at all.
"Everything within space is restricted by the speed of light," explained Richard Obousy, president of Icarus Interstellar, a non-profit group of scientists and engineers devoted to pursuing interstellar spaceflight. "But the really cool thing is space-time, the fabric of space, is not limited by the speed of light."
With this concept, the spacecraft would be able to achieve an effective speed of about 10 times the speed of light, all without breaking the cosmic speed limit.
The only problem is, previous studies estimated the warp drive would require a minimum amount of energy about equal to the mass-energy of the planet Jupiter.
But recently White calculated what would happen if the shape of the ring encircling the spacecraft was adjusted into more of a rounded donut, as opposed to a flat ring. He found in that case, the warp drive could be powered by a mass about the size of a spacecraft like the Voyager 1 probe NASA launched in 1977.
Furthermore, if the intensity of the space warps can be oscillated over time, the energy required is reduced even more, White found.
"The findings I presented today change it from impractical to plausible and worth further investigation," White told SPACE.com. "The additional energy reduction realized by oscillating the bubble intensity is an interesting conjecture that we will enjoy looking at in the lab."
White and his colleagues have begun experimenting with a mini version of the warp drive in their laboratory.
They set up what they call the White-Juday Warp Field Interferometer at the Johnson Space Center, essentially creating a laser interferometer that instigates micro versions of space-time warps.
"We're trying to see if we can generate a very tiny instance of this in a tabletop experiment, to try to perturb space-time by one part in 10 million," White said.
He called the project a "humble experiment" compared to what would be needed for a real warp drive, but said it represents a promising first step.
And other scientists stressed that even outlandish-sounding ideas, such as the warp drive, need to be considered if humanity is serious about traveling to other stars.
"If we're ever going to become a true spacefaring civilization, we're going to have to think outside the box a little bit, were going to have to be a little bit audacious," Obousy said.
According to an article in Gizmodo, a team at the Johnson Spaceflight Center in Houston is studying what sort of technology could be developed that would create a warp drive, a common element in science fiction such as "Star Trek."
Faster than light travel impossible
It is an axiom in modern physics that faster than light travel, at least by conventional means, is impossible. The fasting an object is accelerated, the more massive it becomes, according to a piece on the problem on the Discovery Channel website. At the speed of light, an object would have infinite mass, clearly impossible. In any case, even at near light speed, the nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, is about a 4 1/2-year voyage away.
How a warp drive would work
However, there appears to be a way, at least mathematically, to get around the faster than light problem.According to Popular Science, it is possible to create a "warp bubble" around an object such as a space ship. Spacetime ahead of the ship could be compressed and spacetime behind the ship could be expanded. In effect, a future starship would travel not by moving itself but by moving space.
The NASA experiments
A team inside NASA's Eagleworks, a skunkworks operation at the Johnson Space Center, is working on an experiment that would create and detect a microscopic warp bubble, according to Gizmodo. The team proposes to do this with a device called the White-Juday Warp Field Interferometer that will use a laser to create the microscopic warp bubble.
The energy problem
Hitherto, while such a warp drive was considered theoretically possible, it was thought that it would take an amount of exotic matter, more of a concept in physics than something that has actually been discovered, the size of Jupiter to power it. However, the NASA scientists working on the warp bubble experiment have ascertained that by tweaking the shape and nature of the warp field, about 500 kilograms of exotic matter would be needed to fire up a warp drive, according to Gizmodo. .
Implications of a warp drive
The implications of the proof of the concept of a warp bubble cannot be overstated. Space.com suggests that a football field-sized starship, surrounded by a ring that would generate the warp bubble, could travel an apparent speed of 10 times light speed. Gizmodo suggests that an Earthlike world about 20 light years away, Gliese 581g, would be a two year voyage away.
Naturally a great deal of work would have to be done before a real-life Captain Kirk can issue the order, "Ahead Warp Factor Two." For one thing, some way has to be found to create exotic matter. But if the experiment works, a giant leap toward that day will have been achieved.
Yeah, one of the big problems with Warp Drive is once you achieve it, how do you stop. It also doesn't solve many of the other serious issues with manned space travel, specifically cosmic radiation and lack of gravity. Also, technically you can go at light speed or faster than light if your mass is zero, negative, imaginary, or complex. They problem with this, other than how to convert a bradyon into a super bradyon or a tachyon is that you'd also travel backwards in time and would endlessly accelerate as you lost energy.
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