|"warp factor" image manipulation by a female faust|
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.
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.
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.
By creating one of these warp bubbles, the spaceship's engine will compress the space ahead and expand the space behind, moving it to another place without actually moving, and carrying none of the adverse effects of other travel methods. According to Dr. White, "by harnessing the physics of cosmic inflation, future spaceships crafted to satisfy the laws of these mathematical equations may actually be able to get somewhere unthinkably fast—and without adverse effects."
He says that, if everything is confirmed in these practical experiments, 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 energy requirements are much lower than previously thought. If they optimize the warp bubble thickness and "oscillate its intensity to reduce the stiffness of space time," they would be able to reduce the amount of fuel to manageable amount: instead of a Jupiter-sized ball of exotic matter, you will only need 500 kilograms to "send a 10-meter bubble (32.8 feet) at an effective velocity of 10c."
Ten c! That's ten times the speed of light, people (remember, the ship itself would not go faster than the speed of light. But effectively it will seem like it does).
That means that we would be able to visit Gliese 581g—a planet similar to Earth 20 light years away from our planet—in two years. Two years is nothing. It took Magellan three years to circumnavigate around our home planet...
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.
And Gregory Mone at Popsci, besides an(other) illuminating explanation of how warp drive works, offers a few helpful to-do lists, including:
The Warp Drive To-Do List
A few not-so-minor challenges you'll need to tackle before takeoff