More news on the collaborative writing front! A few weeks back, I found myself tinkering with some of the ideas for the upcoming anthology known as Yuva – the one that deals with space exploration and colonization in the not-too-distant future. As a result of this tinkering, I began to look at some of our concept art and began to ponder making some changes…
Basically, in the anthology me and my writer’s group are crafting, there would be multiple waves of settlers arriving at the planet known as Gliese 581 g (aka. Yuva). Whereas the First Wave would be arriving in ships that relied on relativistic engines (slower than the speed of light), subsequent “waves” would be using something a little more advanced.
Hence the design you see above. Here, the ship is one of three that would be bringing the Second Wave to Yuva. Note the torus ring that encloses the ship. This indicates that the vessel comes equipped with an Alcubierre Drive, a proposed FTL system that is currently being investigated by NASA’s Engineering Directorate.
Based on the field equations of theoretical physicist Miquel Alcubierre, the drive does not exceeding the speed of light within its local frame of reference, but allows a spacecraft to contract space in front of it and expand space behind it, resulting in effective faster-than-light travel.
The design was inspired in large part by the IXS Enterprise designs by Mark Rademaker, an artist who sought to visualize what a spaceship that relied on the Alcubierre Drive might look like. As you can see, he too pictured a ship that would have a ring-shaped torus, but is more suited to our near-future aspirations of exploration.
For the sake of Yuva, the Second Wave ships need to be especially exotic. Which would mean that the vessels have hulls composed of nanofabricated materials that are completely seamless. And whereas the First Wave ships would rely on antimatter engines that would spew energy out the back, the new ships would have no thruster nozzles to speak of.
It’s all in keeping with the idea of rapidly advancing technology, and how the effects of space travel exacerbate the gap between new and obsolete. Whereas the First Wave of colonists would take 100+ plus years to get to a star within our stellar neighborhood, subsequent waves would only need a few years.
This would mean that those who came next would be at least a century ahead in terms of development. And by the 22nd/23rd centuries, when the story is taking place, the leaps and bounds taking place in that amount of time would be immense. New waves of settlers would overwhelm the old with a sense of future shock…
But I’m venturing into spoiler territory here! Rest assured, when the anthology is complete, there’s going to be plenty of these kinds of technological, social and predictive issues being explored. And throughout all that, a sense of high adventure as well. After all, we started this project wanting to capture the awe and wonder that comes from space exploration.
Come hell or high water, that is what we intend to do! Stay tuned for more on this book as it develops…
It’s been awhile since I posted anything from my group’s upcoming Yuva anthology. But of course, there’s a reason for that. With time constraints and other commitments competing for our attention, my group and I have had little time for this ongoing project. But now that I’ve finished editing the preliminary draft of Papa Zulu, I’ve had some time on my hands and decided to rededicate it where its needed.
Below is the latest sample from my story Arrivals, the opening story for Part III of our anthology. As you may know, this story involves the colonists of Yuva, over a century after they first arrived, getting news that a Second Wave is on its way. In the last sample, the Planetary Council was discussing what to do, and a joint mission was proposed between the Ministry of Defense and Planetary Research to fly out and meet the ships while they were still in transit.
In this sample, another revelation is made, and it’s not very pleasant one! Read on to learn more…
* * *
Padda examined the design specs before her, the latest in a series of proposals from the joint task force charged with creating their diplomatic transports. It was now late afternoon and the sun was filtering in through the dome at a slight angle, lending a lovely glow to the arboretum’s generous supply of native specimens.
And in the cumulative radiance of the room, sunlight intermixed with neon-green and purples, the organic light of her Tab’s display glowed and showed her the Ministry’s latest design specs. As expected, the engineers had taken all possibilities to heart, and were producing endless iterations to ensure that the fleet that met the Flotilla would be prepared for any eventuality.
Well, almost any eventuality…
As Padda scanned through image after 3-D image of shuttles with double-hulls, upgraded thrusters, and upgraded acceleration cushions for its crew, she wondered if any amount of planning could prepare them for what they would be encountering soon. In her mind’s eye, she had run several scenarios, some practical and others fantastic. But all of them retained the same mix of awe and terror.
And in that, she knew she wasn’t alone. All over the planet, the spec and interact films were running sims that were based on the impending mission to meet the Second Wave. Word on the QIN had it that most of the simulations were nightmarish, finding an entire crew of dead colonists inside, the work of a hostile organism or a terrible disease. Others had it that the ships were a Trojan horse preceding an invasion, containing some kind of biological or nanotechnological scourge. People always loved to fantasize, and somehow, disaster scenarios remained a powerful draw.
And yet, the paranoid fantasies were not entirely unfounded. Three ships, coming from an Earth that had progressed a full century since Padda’s own ancestors had departed. And every indication they had told them that they were of greater sophistication than the ones that taken part in the First Wave. They had yet to meet them, and already one of their greatest concerns had been confirmed. Those that were on the way would be more advanced than those they were coming to meet.
Yes, despite their virtually identical genetic makeup, there was little doubt that the people they would be encountering on the other side of that airlock would seem very… alien to them. It was a thought that had crept up countless times in the past few months. And each time, she could not help but experience a slight shiver.
Finishing with her perusal of the latest draft plans, she gestured across the surface of her Tab to minimize these and call up the list of her latest messages. At the top of her Inbox, amidst countless requests, referrals, and questions regarding the latest in a million bureaucratic matters, was a message from Motlke. She called it up and looked directly head, preparing for her contacts to broadcast the video directly into her visual field.
She was surprised to see only a small text message appear as soon as it cued up.
My office, 1300 hours. Come alone.
Delete this message upon reading.
The directness and unmistakably clandestine nature of the message surprised her. Waving her hand across the screen, she quickly close and deleted the message, as instructed. Discreetly, she reattached her Tab to her suit, allowing the cells to draw power from her clothes, and left the arboretum.
“What are you talking about?” Padda asked, her face suddenly turning cold.
“I assure you, the information is legitimate,” Moltke replied. “My source in Defense says he’s seen all the schematics, even had the chance to peruse some documents on the stated purpose of the design. His exact words were ‘contingency situation’. That leaves very little doubt in my mind as to what it’s for.”
Padda placed her hands in front of her face in prayer fashion and took a deep breath. Though she knew Moltke well enough to give him the benefit of the doubt, her mind simply couldn’t accept what it was being told. She knew the people at Defense were in the habit of expecting and preparing for the worst. But this?
The sheer audacity and clandestine nature of it all, not to mention the severity…
“And he specifically said it was a weapon? There was no confusion on that point?”
“He was very clear,” Moltke said with a nod. Gently, he glided around to the other side of his desk, moving to the dispenser at the wall and requesting some refreshment. “Not only did the plans call for an unmanned craft, my source emphasized that a specific section was designated as ‘payload’. In the parlance of military planners, that means much the same as warhead.”
Padda took another deep breath and placed her hands on her lap. The dispenser began to buzz quietly and pour steaming tea into an awaiting pot, while another began to carefully print out biscuits onto a sheet. The noise suddenly made her realize that she had not eaten in hours and she was in fact quite hungry.
“And did he specify what nature the weapon would take?”
Moltke shrugged and then removed the teapot and biscuits from the dispenser, placing them all a small tray and bringing them over to his desk. He got to the next part as he poured the tea into two cups and handed her one.
“He could not be specific on that point. But, I did some additional checking, on a hunch, and I think I might have found out what Defense might be up to.”
Padda hummed receptively and smelled the tea. He had anticipated her desire correctly by ordering the Darjeeling. After blowing on it a few times, she took a tentative sip.
“And what did you find?”
Moltke took a sip himself and then exhaled hotly.
“Well, as you know, our high-energy labs have been working hard to produce all the antimatter we put in for. And that’s quite understandable, given the quantities that we stressed we would need. However, I placed a call to the labs to see if they had received any additional requests for fuel. As it turns out, the quantity they are now working towards is forty percent higher than what our initial projections called for. Obviously, this was no accident. I had to call in a few favors in order to get the details, but it seems a certain Councilor contacted them and put in for a greater requisition.”
“Let me guess…” Padda placed the cup down and folded her hands on her lap again. “Astrakhan?”
Moltke took another sip, chuckling to himself. “The order was not signed, but it was official and came directly from the Ministry. So between this requisition order, and the blueprints my source witnessed, I’d say it’s pretty obvious what they have planned.”
Padda shook her head. Yes, it was indeed obvious what they were up to. From all outward indications, they were prepping an antimatter warhead, something that could take out the entire Second Wave before it reached Yuva. Eliminate the potential threat before it had a chance to become a real one. But then again, Moltke’s source had used the words “contingency situation”. Was it possible Astrakhan and his colleagues would be giving them a chance to fail first? That seemed like the far more likely situation, and far less audacious. Her mind quickly began to embrace this more appealing of the two options…
“Is there any chance Defense could be planning to use this weapon as a ‘first strike’ option?”
“Possible,” Moltke conceded. “But if that is the case, he and his associates would have much to answer for once the dust settled on the whole affair. Mass murder is not something our people would look kindly upon, no matter how much he and his associates could stress that they did it to protect us.”
Padda accepted that. Granted, Astrakhan would not be the first man in history that was willing to sacrifice his career, even his life, in the name of protecting his people. But somehow, the Councilor just didn’t seem like the type to martyr himself, not when the danger was still so potential and nebulous.
No, she admitted to herself. There’s still time to do things our way.
“Assuming you’re right,” she said at last. “How do we proceed?”
Moltke shrugged again, draining the last of his tea. “I’m really not sure. Knowing doesn’t exactly change the nature of our situation right now, does it?”
Padda shook her head. “No, I guess it doesn’t. If we confront Astrakhan now, he’ll just deny it. I mean, we have nothing solid to charge with him. And if we tip our hand now, he and his people will no doubt just find a more clandestine way to prepare a ‘contingency’ weapon.”
Moltke raised his finger to her in pedagogical fashion. “Not to mention that it will let him know that I have sources within his Ministry. No, in the end, I’m afraid all we can do is… proceed with the plan we have and hope everything works out.”
“And by that you mean that we proceed with the rendezvous, and pray that our exploration teams don’t find something aboard those ships that will convince Defense that they need to blow them all to hell.”
Moltke chuckled. “Yes, that’s about right.” He looked to the biscuits sitting between them, noting that she hadn’t touched a one. “Now eat something, Anuja. You look absolutely famished.”
Back in January, National Geographic Magazine celebrated its 125th anniversary. In honor of this occasion, they released a special issue which commemorated the past 125 years of human exploration and looked ahead at what the future might hold. As I sat in the doctor’s office, waiting on a prescription for antibiotics to combat my awful cold, I found myself terribly inspired by the article.
So naturally, once I got home, I looked up the article and its source material and got to work. The issue of exploration, especially the future thereof, is not something I can ever pass up! So for the next few minutes (or hours, depending on how much you like to nurse a read), I present you with some possible scenarios about the coming age of deep space exploration.
Suffice it to say, National Geographic’s appraisal of the future of space travel was informative and hit on all the right subjects for me. When one considers the sheer distances involved, not to mention the amount of time, energy, and resources it would take to allow people to get there, the question of reaching into the next great frontier poses a great deal of questions and challenges.
Already, NASA, Earth’s various space agencies and even private companies have several ideas in the works or returning to the Moon, going to Mars, and to the Asteroid Belt. These include the SLS (Space Launch System), the re-purposed and upgraded version of the Saturn V rocket which took the Apollo astronauts to the Moon. Years from now, it may even be taking crews to Mars, which is slated for 2030.
And when it comes to settling the Moon, Mars, and turning the Asteroid Belt into our primary source of mineral extraction and manufacturing, these same agencies, and a number of private corporations are all invested in getting it done. SpaceX is busy testing its reusable-launch rocket, known as the Grasshopper, in the hopes of making space flight more affordable. And NASA and the ESA are perfecting a process known as “sintering” to turn Moon regolith into bases and asteroids into manufactured goods.
Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic, Reaction Engines and Golden Spike are planning to make commercial trips into space and to the Moon possible within a few years time. And with companies like Deep Space Industries and Google-backed Planetary Resources prospeting asteroids and planning expeditions, it’s only a matter of time before everything from Earth to the Jovian is being explored and claimed for our human use.
But when it comes to deep-space exploration, the stuff that would take us to the outer reaches of the Solar System and beyond, that’s where things get tricky and pretty speculative. Ideas have been on the table for some time, since the last great Space Race forced scientists to consider the long-term and come up with proposed ways of closing the gap between Earth and the stars. But to this day, they remain a scholarly footnote, conceptual and not yet realizable.
But as we embark of a renewed era of space exploration, where the stuff of science fiction is quickly becoming the stuff of science fact, these old ideas are being dusted off, paired up with newer concepts, and seriously considered. While they might not be feasible at the moment, who know what tomorrow holds? From the issues of propulsion, to housing, to cost and time expenditures, the human race is once again taking a serious look at extra-Solar exploration.
And here are some of the top contenders for the “Final Frontier”:
Nuclear Propulsion: The concept of using nuclear bombs (no joke) to propel a spacecraft was first proposed in 1946 by Stanislaw Ulam, a Polish-American mathematician who participated in the Manhattan Project. Preliminary calculations were then made by F. Reines and Ulam in 1947, and the actual project – known as Project Orion was initiated in 1958 and led by Ted Taylor at General Atomics and physicist Freeman Dyson from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.
In short, the Orion design involves a large spacecraft with a high supply of thermonuclear warheads achieving propulsion by releasing a bomb behind it and then riding the detonation wave with the help of a rear-mounted pad called a “pusher”. After each blast, the explosive force is absorbed by this pusher pad, which then translates the thrust into forward momentum.
Though hardly elegant by modern standards, the proposed design offered a way of delivering the explosive (literally!) force necessary to propel a rocket over extreme distances, and solved the issue of how to utilize that force without containing it within the rocket itself. However, the drawbacks of this design are numerous and noticeable.
F0r starters, the ship itself is rather staggering in size, weighing in anywhere from 2000 to 8,000,000 tonnes, and the propulsion design releases a dangerous amount of radiation, and not just for the crew! If we are to rely on ships that utilize nuclear bombs to achieve thrust, we better find a course that will take them away from any inhabited or habitable areas. What’s more, the cost of producing a behemoth of this size (even the modest 2000 tonne version) is also staggering.
Antimatter Engine: Most science fiction authors who write about deep space exploration (at least those who want to be taken seriously) rely on anti-matter to power ships in their stories. This is no accident, since antimatter is the most potent fuel known to humanity right now. While tons of chemical fuel would be needed to propel a human mission to Mars, just tens of milligrams of antimatter, if properly harnessed, would be able to supply the requisite energy.
Fission and fusion reactions convert just a fraction of 1 percent of their mass into energy. But by combine matter with antimatter, its mirror twin, a reaction of 100 percent efficiency is achieved. For years, physicists at the CERN Laboratory in Geneva have been creating tiny quantities of antimatter by smashing subatomic particles together at near-light speeds. Given time and considerable investment, it is entirely possible this could be turned into a form of advanced propulsion.
In an antimatter rocket, a dose of antihydrogen would be mixed with an equal amount of hydrogen in a combustion chamber. The mutual annihilation of a half pound of each, for instance, would unleash more energy than a 10-megaton hydrogen bomb, along with a shower of subatomic particles called pions and muons. These particles, confined within a magnetic nozzle similar to the type necessary for a fission rocket, would fly out the back at one-third the speed of light.
However, there are natural drawback to this design as well. While a top speed of 33% the speed of light per rocket is very impressive, there’s the question of how much fuel will be needed. For example, while it would be nice to be able to reach Alpha Centauri – a mere 4.5 light years away – in 13.5 years instead of the 130 it would take using a nuclear rocket, the amount of antimatter needed would be immense.
No means exist to produce antimatter in such quantities right now, and the cost of building the kind of rocket required would be equally immense. Considerable refinements would therefore be needed and a sharp drop in the cost associated with building such a vessel before any of its kind could be deployed.
Laser Sail: Thinking beyond rockets and engines, there are some concepts which would allow a spaceship to go into deep space without the need for fuel at all. In 1948, Robert Forward put forward a twist on the ancient technique of sailing, capturing wind in a fabric sail, to propose a new form of space travel. Much like how our world is permeated by wind currents, space is filled with cosmic radiation – largely in the form of photons and energy associated with stars – that push a cosmic sail in the same way.
This was followed up again in the 1970’s, when Forward again proposed his beam-powered propulsion schemes using either lasers or masers (micro-wave lasers) to push giant sails to a significant fraction of the speed of light. When photons in the laser beam strike the sail, they would transfer their momentum and push the sail onward. The spaceship would then steadily builds up speed while the laser that propels it stays put in our solar system.
Much the same process would be used to slow the sail down as it neared its destination. This would be done by having the outer portion of the sail detach, which would then refocus and reflect the lasers back onto a smaller, inner sail. This would provide braking thrust to slow the ship down as it reached the target star system, eventually bringing it to a slow enough speed that it could achieve orbit around one of its planets.
Once more, there are challenges, foremost of which is cost. While the solar sail itself, which could be built around a central, crew-carrying vessel, would be fuel free, there’s the little matter of the lasers needed to propel it. Not only would these need to operate for years continuously at gigawatt strength, the cost of building such a monster would be astronomical, no pun intended!
A solution proposed by Forward was to use a series of enormous solar panel arrays on or near the planet Mercury. However, this just replaced one financial burden with another, as the mirror or fresnel lens would have to be planet-sized in scope in order for the Sun to keep the lasers focused on the sail. What’s more, this would require that a giant braking sail would have to be mounted on the ship as well, and it would have to very precisely focus the deceleration beam.
So while solar sails do present a highly feasible means of sending people to Mars or the Inner Solar System, it is not the best concept for interstellar space travel. While it accomplishes certain cost-saving measures with its ability to reach high speeds without fuel, these are more than recouped thanks to the power demands and apparatus needed to be it moving.
Generation/Cryo-Ship: Here we have a concept which has been explored extensively in fiction. Known as an Interstellar Ark, an O’Neill Cylinder, a Bernal Sphere, or a Stanford Taurus, the basic philosophy is to create a ship that would be self-contained world, which would travel the cosmos at a slow pace and keep the crew housed, fed, or sustained until they finally reached their destination. And one of the main reasons that this concept appears so much in science fiction literature is that many of the writers who made use of it were themselves scientists.
The first known written examples include Robert H. Goddard “The Last Migration” in 1918, where he describes an “interstellar ark” containing cryogenic ally frozen people that set out for another star system after the sun died. Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky later wrote of “Noah’s Ark” in his essay “The Future of Earth and Mankind” in 1928. Here, the crews were kept in wakeful conditions until they reached their destination thousands of years later.
By the latter half of the 20th century, with authors like Robert A. Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky, Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Paradises Lost, the concept began to be explored as a distant possibility for interstellar space travel. And in 1964, Dr. Robert Enzmann proposed a concept for an interstellar spacecraft known as the Enzmann Starship that included detailed notes on how it would be constructed.
Enzmann’s concept would be powered by deuterium engines similar to what was called for with the Orion Spacecraft, the ship would measure some 600 meters (2000 feet) long and would support an initial crew of 200 people with room for expansion. An entirely serious proposal, with a detailed assessment of how it would be constructed, the Enzmann concept began appearing in a number of science fiction and fact magazines by the 1970’s.
Despite the fact that this sort of ship frees its makers from the burden of coming up with a sufficiently fast or fuel-efficient engine design, it comes with its own share of problems. First and foremost, there’s the cost of building such a behemoth. Slow-boat or no, the financial and resource burden of building a mobile space ship is beyond most countries annual GDP. Only through sheer desperation and global cooperation could anyone conceive of building such a thing.
Second, there’s the issue of the crew’s needs, which would require self-sustaining systems to ensure food, water, energy, and sanitation over a very long haul. This would almost certainly require that the crew remain aware of all its technical needs and continue to maintain it, generation after generation. And given that the people aboard the ship would be stuck in a comparatively confined space for so long, there’s the extreme likelihood of breakdown and degenerating conditions aboard.
Third, there’s the fact that the radiation environment of deep space is very different from that on the Earth’s surface or in low earth orbit. The presence of high-energy cosmic rays would pose all kinds of health risks to a crew traveling through deep space, so the effects and preventative measures would be difficult to anticipate. And last, there’s the possibility that while the slow boat is taking centuries to get through space, another, better means of space travel will be invented.
Faster-Than-Light (FTL) Travel: Last, we have the most popular concept to come out of science fiction, but which has received very little support from scientific community. Whether it was the warp drive, the hyperdrive, the jump drive, or the subspace drive, science fiction has sought to exploit the holes in our knowledge of the universe and its physical laws in order to speculate that one day, it might be possible to bridge the vast distances between star systems.
However, there are numerous science based challenges to this notion that make an FTL enthusiast want to give up before they even get started. For one, there’s Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, which establishes the speed of light (c) as the uppermost speed at which anything can travel. For subatomic particles like photons, which have no mass and do not experience time, the speed of light is a given. But for stable matter, which has mass and is effected by time, the speed of light is a physical impossibility.
For one, the amount of energy needed to accelerate an object to such speeds is unfathomable, and the effects of time dilation – time slowing down as the speed of light approaches – would be unforeseeable. What’s more, achieving the speed of light would most likely result in our stable matter (i.e. our ships and bodies) to fly apart and become pure energy. In essence, we’d die!
Naturally, there have been those who have tried to use the basis of Special Relativity, which allows for the existence of wormholes, to postulate that it would be possible to instantaneously move from one point in the universe to another. These theories for “folding space”, or “jumping” through space time, suffer from the same problem. Not only are they purely speculative, but they raise all kinds of questions about temporal mechanics and causality. If these wormholes are portals, why just portals in space and not time?
And then there’s the concept of a quantum singularity, which is often featured in talk of FTL. The belief here is that an artificial singularity could be generated, thus opening a corridor in space-time which could then be traversed. The main problem here is that such an idea is likely suicide. A quantum singularity, aka. a black hole, is a point in space where the laws of nature break down and become indistinguishable from each other – hence the term singularity.
Also, they are created by a gravitational force so strong that it tears a hole in space time, and that resulting hole absorbs all things, including light itself, into its maw. It is therefore impossible to know what resides on the other side of one, and astronomers routinely observe black holes (most notably Sagittarius A at the center of our galaxy) swallow entire planets and belch out X-rays, evidence of their destruction. How anyone could think these were a means of safe space travel is beyond me! But then again, they are a plot device, not a serious idea…
But before you go thinking that I’m dismissing FTL in it’s entirety, there is one possibility which has the scientific community buzzing and even looking into it. It’s known as the Alcubierre Drive, a concept which was proposed by physicist Miguel Alcubierre in his 1994 paper: “The Warp Drive: Hyper-Fast Travel Within General Relativity.”
The equations and theory behind his concept postulate 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.
In October 2011, physicist Harold White attempted to rework the equations while in Florida where he was helping to kick off NASA and DARPA’s joint 100 Year Starship project. While putting together his presentation on warp, he began toying with Alcubierre’s field equations and came to the conclusion that something truly workable was there. In October of 2012, he announced that he and his NASA team would be working towards its realization.
But while White himself claims its feasible, and has the support of NASA behind him, the mechanics behind it all are still theoretical, and White himself admits that the energy required to pull off this kind of “warping” of space time is beyond our means at the current time. Clearly, more time and development are needed before anything of this nature can be realized. Fingers crossed, the field equations hold, because that will mean it is at least theoretically possible!
Summary: In case it hasn’t been made manifestly obvious by now, there’s no simple solution. In fact, just about all possibilities currently under scrutiny suffer from the exact same problem: the means just don’t exist yet to make them happen. But even if we can’t reach for the stars, that shouldn’t deter us from reaching for objects that are significantly closer to our reach. In the many decades it will take us to reach the Moon, Mars, the Asteroid Belt, and Jupiter’s Moons, we are likely to revisit this problem many times over.
And I’m sure that in course of creating off-world colonies, reducing the burden on planet Earth, developing solar power and other alternative fuels, and basically working towards this thing known as the Technological Singularity, we’re likely to find that we are capable of far more than we ever thought before. After all, what is money, resources, or energy requirements when you can harness quantum energy, mine asteroids, and turn AIs and augmented minds onto the problems of solving field equations?
Yeah, take it from me, the odds are pretty much even that we will be making it to the stars in the not-too-distant future, one way or another. As far as probabilities go, there’s virtually no chance that we will be confined to this rock forever. Either we will branch out to colonize new planets and new star systems, or go extinct before we ever get the chance. I for one find that encouraging… and deeply disturbing!
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! 😉