Loophole in laws of physics may make Star Trek-like warp drive ‘science fact’

Scott Sutherland

At the 100 Year Starship Symposium this weekend, scientists, astronauts and other space enthusiasts met to discuss the future of human space travel beyond our solar system and to another star.

The biggest challenge to overcome for this kind of space travel is the time it would take to reach the intended destination. The New Horizons spacecraft, the latest mission to travel to the edge of the solar system, was launched in January of 2006 to investigate Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, and is only now, over six and a half years later, reaching about the halfway point to its destination.

In science fiction, we'd just engage the hyperdrive, or power up the warp core, but that does us little good when we really need science fact. In 1994, a Mexican scientist by the name of Miguel Alcubierre came up with a real-life concept for a warp drive. The problem with developing the technology was how much energy it required. The minimum amount of energy to power such a drive would, by the mass-energy equivalence of Einstein's equation Emc2, consume the planet Jupiter.

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The ship design wouldn't look anything like what Kirk and Picard commanded, though. The closest thing I can find is a Vulcan ship from the Star Trek: Enterprise tv-series — a roughly football-shaped vessel encircled by a ring, possibly constructed of currently-hypothetical 'exotic matter', which would bend space around it while the ship inside the ring would remain safe from any warping.

Harold White, of NASA's Johnson Space Center, recently tweaked the design of the Alcubierre warp drive, changing the original flat ring that encircled the ship to more of a rounded donut. That change reduced the mass-equivalent energy needed to power the drive from the planet Jupiter down to the Voyager 1 spacecraft, which had a mass of 722 kilograms. This put the idea of an Alcubierre warp drive far closer to the reach of science.

The basic idea behind the warp drive, both in Star Trek and in the real world, is a manipulation of a loophole in the laws of physics that govern space and time.

"Everything within space is restricted by the speed of light," said Richard Obousy, president of Icarus Interstellar, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to achieving interstellar flight by the year 2100. "But the really cool thing is space-time, the fabric of space, is not limited by the speed of light."

If you could manipulate the fabric of space-time, contracting it in front of your ship and expanding it behind your ship, the amount of space-time between you and your destination would shrink and the amount of space-time between you and your origin would expand. Even though your ship did not actually move in any conventional sense — you didn't move from your location in space, but moved space around your location — you would still end up at your destination, light-years away from where you were.

This new 'Alcubierre-White' warp drive is currently being tested, in miniature form.

"We're trying to see if we can generate a very tiny instance of this in a tabletop experiment, to try to perturb space-time by one part in 10 million," White said.

The idea behind all this may seem silly, but if the human race is ever to achieve space travel beyond our solar system, and be able to visit even the closest of our stellar neighbors, this is what it's going to take to achieve that.

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"If we're ever going to become a true space-faring civilization, we're going to have to think outside the box a little bit, were going to have to be a little bit audacious," Obousy said.