A few months ago, physicist Harold White shocked and stunned the world when he announced that he and his team at NASA were beginning work on the world’s first faster-than-light warp drive. Naturally, this produced a whole slew of questions, not the least of which was what model his team would be considering. After all, there have been countless theories put forth over the years as to how humanity could one day break the “light barrier”. Which theory White and his team would pursue was naturally the first on everybody’s mind.
Apparently, White’s proposed design will be a re-imagining of the Alcubierre Drive, a concept which has already been extensively popularized in science fiction and pop culture. Proposed by Miguel Alcubierre in 1994 in his seminal paper: “The Warp Drive: Hyper-Fast Travel Within General Relativity,” Alcubierre suggested a mechanism by which space-time could be “warped” both in front of and behind a spacecraft. After going over the equations in detail, White believed he found a way to make the theory work.
All of this began in October of last year, where White was preparing for a talk he was to give as part of the kickoff of the 100 Year Starship project in Orlando, Florida. While putting together his presentation on warp, he began toying with Alcubierre’s field equations, mainly out of curiosity. After making some adjustments, he came to the conclusion that something truly workable was there, and presented his findings this past October in Atlanta, where the 100 Year Starship project was meeting once again.
The equations and theory postulates that since space-time can be contracted and expanded, empty space behind a starship could be made to expand rapidly, pushing the craft in a forward direction. Passengers would perceive it as movement despite the complete lack of acceleration, and vast distances (i.e. light years) could be passed in a matter of days and weeks instead of decades. What’s more, this “warp drive” would allow for FTL while at the same time remaining consistent with Einstein’s theory of Relativity.
This has been a major hurdle for physicists looking for ways around the speed of light, since all previous theories required a cosmic model where Relativity – fundamental to our understanding of the universe – would not apply. At the same time, the physics described in the Alcubierre process sound like something directly out of Star Trek, something all sci-fi geeks are sure to notice! It begins with a spheroid object being placed between two regions of space-time (one expanding and one contracting), which in turn generates a “warp bubble” that moves space-time around the object, effectively repositioning it.
The end result is faster-than-light travel without the spheroid having to move with respect to its local frame of reference. In short, those aboard the object would notice the repositioning of their spacecraft, but would experience no “time dilation”, where their perception of time differs greatly from those in a different frame of reference. Or to put it another way, the Alcubierre drive could transport people from Earth to Mars and back again, and for all concerned (the passengers and people Earthside) there would be little difference in the amount of time experienced. None of this, “I’m a year older, but everybody I knew is dead!” stuff. You have to admit, that’s a real perk!
But of course, there are a lot of challenges ahead for White and his team. For example, in an interview with IO9, White said: “Remember, nothing locally exceeds the speed of light, but space can expand and contract at any speed. However, space-time is really stiff, so to create the expansion and contraction effect in a useful manner in order for us to reach interstellar destinations in reasonable time periods would require a lot of energy.” Luckily, his reworking of the equations has brought that requirement done somewhat, but the amounts required mean that a great deal of research and development is still needed.
Perhaps if we can find a way to work cold fusion in the mix, or build an anti-matter reactor. Maybe some hydrogen ramscoops and a Heisenberg compensator, then we’d be in business! Might we need some dilithium crystals too? I’ll call Jordie LaForge and tell him to get on it! 😉