This is going to take a minute to wrap your head around but please give it a try. Back in the 1960’s Gene Roddenberry postulated, via his TV show Star Trek, that space ships could travel faster than light. This earned him universal disdain from “real” scientists. But, for one fan in Mexico, Miguel Alcubierre, the question wasn’t if it could be done but why it couldn’t be. He went on to get a bus load of degrees and awards and then, in 1994, showed how it could be done. Not as fantasy, not as theory, but in such a way that you could head off to Home Depot, grab some stuff and head off to Alpha Centauri. Well, okay, I might be exaggerating just a bit. Home Depot has lots of cool stuff, but nothing this cool. Nevertheless, the math was there and suddenly the universe wasn’t as off limits as it had been. The problem was that, to attain almost infinite speed, you needed almost infinite amounts of energy. That was not practical. Still isn’t.
But now, as Clara Moskowitz reports, some scientists are saying “not so fast with those limits on fast.” They think they’ve figured out how to make it happen.
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 bringing 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-shaped 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.
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 doughnut, 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.
Here’s a fun fact.
Our current technology, due to budget cuts and wars and so on, has us around 10 to 20 years from being able to do manned solar exploration. That would mean visiting the planets around us that we can see at night.
In that same amount of time, given the current level of the math involved, we could begin interstellar flight. That would mean visiting those puffy balls of light that are actually alien galaxies, that wee can also see at night.
In other words, we could stand on Kepler-22b before we get to Mars.
How odd yet cool is that?
Listen to Bill McCormick on WBIG (FOX! Sports) every Friday around 9:10 AM.