Crossing the Final Frontier

Alien art could be coming soon.
Alien art could be coming soon.

Way back on September 18, 2012, the day before my 51st birthday, I wrote about a speed freak’s wet dream. Back in 1994 a nifty dude named Miguel Alcubierre had figured out that going faster than light, at least from an exterior perspective, was theoretically possible. The tiny, itsy bitsy, problem was that the amount of energy required to make it all work could kill all life in our solar system. That would include us in case you missed a memo or two. So, at the end of the day, it was something fun to think about but showed no practical value.

Then, a nutty guy named Dr. Harold “Sonny” White took a look at the equations and noticed that they could be put in a different order, in a manner that wouldn’t kill us all, and still work. He and a couple of folks got together and even developed a couple of renderings of what such a ship could look like.

NASA added his research into their 100 year plan, designed to realistically create interstellar travel, and went about doing their business in the real world. That plan is looking at what tech needs to be invented, what business models would need to be followed and so on.

And 100 years sounded about right. After all we don’t even have a deep space rocket. We’ve got nothing that could set up a safe building platform.

Well, we didn’t.

As Miriam Kramer notes, now we do.

NASA new mega-rocket, a towering booster designed for deep space missions, will be ready for its first test flight no later than November 2018, space agency officials announced Wednesday (Aug. 27).

It’s possible that the Space Launch System rocket test flight could launch as early as December 2017, but NASA officials have committed to having the rocket ready for flight be the end of 2018 to be safe. That extra wiggle room should let the space agency cope with scheduling and funding issues as they crop up in the future, NASA officials said in a teleconference with reporters.

The SLS will be the largest rocket ever constructed and it is designed to send humans deeper into space than ever before. The huge launcher — which will stand at 400-feet-tall (122 meters) in its final configuration — could deliver NASA astronauts to an asteroid and even Mars sometime in the future. [See images of NASA’s SLS rocket design]

The SLS is derived from proven technology used for decades in America's moon program and the space shuttle.
NASA’s giant Space Launch System, or SLS, is derived from proventechnology used for decades in America’s moon program and the space shuttle. See how NASA’s Space Launch System mega-rocket works in this infographic.
Credit: Karl Tate,

“Our nation is embarked on an ambitious space exploration program, and we owe it to the American taxpayers to get it right,” NASA associate administrator Robert Lightfoot, said in a statement. “After rigorous review, we’re committing today to a funding level and readiness date that will keep us on track to sending humans to Mars in the 2030s – and we’re going to stand behind that commitment.”

NASA expects that SLS will cost a total of $7 billion from February 2014 through November 2018. For its first test flight, SLS will fly out of low-Earth orbit with an unmanned Orion space capsule.

The SLS team just passed a major design review, which will allow the program to move forward with design plans.

Illustration of Space Launch System Rolling to Launchpad
As seen in this artist’s illustration, SLS will represent the most powerful rocket in history. Image released Aug. 27, 2014.

The 2018 date is a reflection of modeling done by a review board, which suggested that the new date is likely more attainable, NASA officials said during a news conference today (Aug. 27). The review board looked at the SLS plan and brought up problems that could arise during the building of the rocket system, possibly causing a change in schedule.

“They’re [the review board] telling us that if we don’t do anything, we basically have a 70 percent chance of getting to that date,” William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for the Human Explorations and Operations Mission Directorate, said during the news conference. “Our intent and the team’s intent at Marshall [Space Flight Center] is to go look at those problems and see what we can do to mitigate those problems.”

“There are probably some other problems that aren’t even identified by the Standing Review Board that will come up,” Gerstenmaier added. “Our job as a management team is to look at those problems, figure out ways to work those ahead of time, and proactively work those as they come about.”

It’s possible that the first SLS flight could occur before the 2018 target if the team works to head off any potential issues before they occur, according to Gerstenmaier.

Now, I don’t want to task your memory, but not that long ago we were chatting about Dr. Sonny. As it turns out he isn’t one of those patient kind of dudes. You see, with the mega rocket and some room to move he changed the timeline for touring the galaxy from 100 years to “in our lifetime.”

To make his point he hooked up with a coupe of artist to create images of faster than light ships. Made with stuff we have laying around now.

Jesus Diaz points out that this could be a thing.

As in a real thing.

Dr. Harold “Sonny” White is still working on a warp drive at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. His work is still in the experimental stage but that doesn’t mean he can’t imagine what the real lifeEnterprise ship would look like according to his math.

You’re looking at it right now.

NASA's real life Enterprise may take us to other star systems one dayEXPAND

NASA's real life Enterprise may take us to other star systems one dayEXPAND

This is the starship that may take us where no human has gone before. And it has me screaming like a little Klingon girl.

NASA's real life Enterprise may take us to other star systems one dayEXPAND

Concept 3D artist Mark Rademaker told io9 that “he worked with White to create the updated model, which includes a sleek ship nestled at the center of two enormous rings, which create the warp bubble.”

The updated model is the one you can see above, a variation of the original concept which, according to Dr. White, was rendered by Rademaker based on an idea by Matthew Jeffries, the guy who came with “the familiar Star Trek look.” This is the original warp drive spaceship concept:

NASA's real life Enterprise may take us to other star systems one dayEXPAND

Dr. White—whose daily life is working in future propulsion solutions for interplanetary travel in the near future, like ion and plasma thrusters—developed new theoretical work that solved the problems of the Alcubierre Drive concept, a theory that allowed faster-than-light travel based on Einstein’s field equations in general relativity, developed by theoretical physicist Miguel Alcubierre.

A spaceship equipped with a warp drive would allow faster-than-light travel by bending the space around it, making distances shorter. At the local level, however, the spaceship wouldn’t be moving faster than light. Therefore, warp drive travel doesn’t violate the first Einstein commandment: Thou shall not travel faster than light.

Here’s more views of the IXS Enterprise during its construction phase, the concept that Dr. White developed with Rademaker:

You can watch the fascinating talk that Dr. White gave at the SpaceVision 2013 conference here:

The spacecraft reminds me a bit to the spaceship in Chris Nolan’s Interstellar, a film that—in theory—will portrait realistic faster-than-light travel. This is partial view of the ship in the movie, which also has a ring of some sort around it.

NASA's real life Enterprise may take us to other star systems one day

Not a fantasy, but real science

But Interstellar is just science fiction. Dr. White’s work at the Advanced Propulsion Theme Lead for the NASA Engineering Directorate is science. And while his department only gets peanuts compared to NASA’s budget (not to talk about the Pentagon’s) I find his words comforting:

Perhaps a Star Trek experience within our lifetime is not such a remote possibility.

See, Dr. White and his colleagues aren’t making a movie or coming up with 3D renders for the sake of it. They just don’t just believe a real life warp drive is theoretically possible; they’ve already started the work to create one:

Working at NASA Eagleworks—a skunkworks operation deep at NASA’s Johnson Space Center—Dr. White’s team is trying to find proof of those loopholes. They have “initiated an interferometer test bed that will try to generate and detect a microscopic instance of a little warp bubble” using an instrument called the White-Juday Warp Field Interferometer.

It may sound like a small thing now, but the implications of the research huge. In his own words:

Although this is just a tiny instance of the phenomena, it will be existence proof for the idea of perturbing space time-a “Chicago pile” moment, as it were. Recall that December of 1942 saw the first demonstration of a controlled nuclear reaction that generated a whopping half watt. This existence proof was followed by the activation of a ~ four megawatt reactor in November of 1943. Existence proof for the practical application of a scientific idea can be a tipping point for technology development.

The roadmap to the warp drive

According to Dr. White, this is a roadmap that they need to follow to achieve that final objective of rapid interstellar travel. He explains this roadmap in the video above.

NASA's real life Enterprise may take us to other star systems one dayEXPAND

If his work is successful, he says that we would be able to create an engine that will get us to Alpha Centauri “in two weeks as measured by clocks here on Earth.” The time will be the same in the spaceship and on Earth, he claims, and there will not be “tidal forces inside the bubble, no undue issues, and the proper acceleration is zero. When you turn the field on, everybody doesn’t go slamming against the bulkhead, which would be a very short and sad trip.”

Every time I read that paragraph I smile—and these renders just make my smile so wide it looks stupid.

OK, Dr. White, you got our attention. Make it so.

If all of that gets confusing allow me to simplify. There’s this thing called the time dilation effect. In essence if you traveled 100 years around the speed of light you’d age a couple of days and all your friends would be dead.

But, if Sonny’s idea works, and we can call him Sonny now, then you would fold space at point A and unfold it at point B and be many light years from home, but in real time. A day for you on the ship would be just the same as a day here.

That makes interstellar travel possible.

And Sonny says that’s something we can do now.

Aliens explore Earth HD from Fiorella on Vimeo.

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