NASA’s Proposed Warp-Drive Visualized

ixs-enterpriseIt’s no secret that NASA has been taking a serious look at Faster-Than-Light (FTL) technology in recent years. It began back in 2012 when Dr Harold White, a team leader from NASA’s Engineering Directorate, announced that he and his team had begun work on the development of a warp drive. His proposed design, an ingenious re-imagining of an Alcubierre Drive, may eventually result in an engine that can transport a spacecraft to the nearest star in a matter of weeks — and all without violating Einstein’s law of relativity.

In the spirit of this proposed endeavor, White chose to collaborate with an artist to visualize what such a ship might look like. Said artist, Mark Rademaker, recently unveiled the fruit of this collaboration in the form of a series of concept images. At the heart of them is a sleek ship nestled at the center of two enormous rings that create the warp bubble. Known as the IXS Enterprise, the ship has one foot in the world of science fiction, but the other in the realm of hard science.

ixs-enterprise-0The idea for the warp-drive comes from the work published by Miguel Alcubierre in 1994. His version of a warp drive is based on the observation that, though light can only travel at a maximum speed of 300,000 km/sec (186,000 miles per second, aka. c), spacetime itself has a theoretically unlimited speed. Indeed, many physicists believe that during the first seconds of the Big Bang, the universe expanded at some 30 billion times the speed of light.

The Alcubierre warp drive works by recreating this ancient expansion in the form of a localized bubble around a spaceship. Alcubierre reasoned that if he could form a torus of negative energy density around a spacecraft and push it in the right direction, this would compress space in front of it and expand space behind it. As a result, the ship could travel at many times the speed of light while the ship itself sits in zero gravity – hence sparing the crew from the effects of acceleration.

alcubierre-warp-drive-overviewUnfortunately, the original maths indicated that a torus the size of Jupiter would be needed, and you’d have to turn Jupiter itself into pure energy to power it. Worse, negative energy density violates a lot of physical limits itself, and to create it requires forms of matter so exotic that their existence is largely hypothetical. In short, what was an idea proposed to circumvent the laws of physics itself fell prey to their limitations.

However, Dr Harold “Sonny” White of NASA’s Johnson Space Center reevaluated Alcubierre’s equations and made adjustments that corrected for the required size of the torus and the amount of energy required. In the case of the former, White discovered that making the torus thicker, while reducing the space available for the ship, allowed the size of it to be greatly decreased – from the size of Jupiter down to a width of 10 m (30 ft), roughly the size of the Voyager 1 probe.

alcubierre-warp-drive-overviewIn the case of the latter, oscillating the bubble around the craft would reduce the stiffness of spacetime, making it easier to distort. This would reduce the amount of energy required by several orders of magnitude, for a ship traveling ten times the speed of light. According to White, with such a setup, a ship could reach Alpha Centauri in a little over five months. A crew traveling on a ship that could accelerate to just shy of the speed of light be able to make the same trip in about four and a half years.

Rademaker’s renderings reflect White’s new calculations. The toruses are thicker and, unlike the famous warp nacelles on Star Trek’s Enterprise, their design is the true function of hurling the craft between the stars. Also, the craft, which is divided into command and service modules, fits properly inside the warp bubble. There are some artistic additions, such as some streamlining, but no one said an interstellar spaceship couldn’t be functional and pretty right?

ixs-enterprise-2For the time being, White’s ideas can only be tested on special interferometers of the most exacting precision. Worse, the dependence of the warp on negative energy density is a major barrier to realization. While it can, under special circumstances, exist at a quantum level, in the classical physical world that this ship must travel through, it cannot exist except as a property of some form of matter so exotic that it can barely be said to be capable of existing in our universe.

Though no one can say with any certainty when such a system might be technically feasible, it doesn’t hurt to look ahead and dream of what may one day be possible. And in the meantime, you can check out Rademaker’s entire gallery by going to his Flickr account here. And be sure to check out the video of Dr. White explaining his warp-drive concept at SpaceVision 2013:


News From Space: Robotnaut Gets a Pair of Legs!

robotnaut_movementSpaceX’s latest delivery to the International Space Station – which was itself pretty newsworthy – contained some rather interesting cargo: the legs for NASA’s robot space station helper. Robotics enthusiasts know this being as Robonaut 2 (R2), a humanoid robot NASA placed on the space station to automate tasks such as cleaning and routine maintenance. Since its arrival at the station in February 2011, R2 has performed a series of tasks to demonstrate its functionality in microgravity.

Until now, Robonaut navigated around the ISS on wheels. But thanks to a brand-new pair of springy, bendy legs, the space station’s helper robot will now be able to walk, climb, and perform a variety of new chores. These new legs, funded by NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations and Space Technology mission directorates, will provide R2 the mobility it needs to help with regular and repetitive tasks inside and outside the space station. The goal is to free up the crew for more critical work, including scientific research.

robonaut1NASA says that the new seven-jointed legs are designed for climbing in zero gravity and offer a considerable nine-foot leg span. Michael Gazarik, NASA’s associate administrator for space technology in Washington, explained:

NASA has explored with robots for more than a decade, from the stalwart rovers on Mars to R2 on the station. Our investment in robotic technology development is helping us to bolster productivity by applying robotics technology and devices to fortify and enhance individual human capabilities, performance and safety in space.

Taking their design inspiration from the tethers astronauts use while spacewalking, the legs feature a series of “end effectors” – each f which has a built-in vision system designed to eventually automate each limb’s approaching and grasping – rather than feet. These allow the legs to grapple onto handrails and sockets located both inside the space station and, eventually, on the ISS’s exterior. Naturally, these legs don’t come cheap -costing $6 million to develop and an additional $8 million to construct and test for spaceflight.

robonaut_legsRobonaut was developed by NASA’s Johnson Space Center in collaboration with General Motors and off-shore oil field robotics firm Oceaneering. All that corporate involvement isn’t accidental; Robonaut isn’t designed to simply do chores around the space station. NASA is also using R2 to showcase a range of patented technologies that private companies can license from Johnson Space Center.

The humanoid, task-performing robot is also a NASA technology showcase. In a webcast, the space agency advertised its potential uses in logistics warehouses, medical and industrial robotics, and in toxic or hazardous environments. As NASA dryly puts it:

R2 shares senses similar to humans: the ability to touch and see. These senses allow it to perform in ways that are not typical for robots today.

robonaut_legs2In addition to these legs, this latest supply drop – performed by a SpaceX Dragon capsule – included a laser communication system for astronauts and an outer space farming system designed to grow lettuce and other salad crops in orbit. We can expect that the Robotnaut 2 will be assisting in their use and upkeep in the coming months and years. So expect to hear more about this automated astronaut in the near future!

And in the meantime, be sure to check out this cool video of the R2 robotic legs in action: