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Why a “warp drive” isn’t just science fiction anymore.
In the past few weeks, you may have seen reports that a NASA scientist (Harold White) is conducting some preliminary experiments to see if it may be possible to, one day in the future, build an actual Warp Drive.
In fact, he’s even collaborated with artist Mark Rademaker to create some absolutely stunning images of what a Warp Drive-enabled ship might look like.
While the images are lovely, and the drive itself is mathematically possible, you Captain Kirk wannabees won’t be chatting up any triple-breasted, green-skinned ladies in the near future. (At least, not outside of DragonCon.) But, to see why, let’s start at the beginning, with the idea itself.
In 1994, a physicist named Miguel Alcubierre wrote a nifty paper that suggested that it might be possible to get around the light-speed barrier (299,792,428 meters/sec) by encasing a vehicle in a “warp bubble.” The space inside the bubble itself wouldn’t move, but the space in front of the bubble would contract, and the space behind the bubble would expand.
The net effect being that the bubble would be moved through space at any speed you’d like, up to and beyond the speed of light itself. Inside the bubble, you’d basically be just sitting there, not feeling any acceleration or other effects of the journey.
(Note that this is actually different from the warp drive used in “Star Trek.” In the show, the drive actually propels the ship itself through space. This drive would move a chunk of space though space. The ship would just be along for the ride.)
Mathematically, it’s beautiful. Practically, however, it’s a bit of a nightmare. For a start, it requires the use of something called “negative energy,” which may or may not exist. Plus, when you get to where you’re going, there would be an energy burst in front of your vehicle that would most likely obliterate the interstellar pleasure dome orphanage, that you were trying to visit. Finally, the mass required to create the needed negative energy was something along the lines of -1064kg.
Which, in addition to being negative matter (which might not actually exist), is an amount that’s a few times larger than the total mass of the observable universe. Pesky details indeed. But the math? Lovely stuff there.
Fortunately, lovely math is all you really need to keep the interest of theoretical physicists and mathematicians. So, over the years, others have taken up the equations and refined them significantly. In 2012, Harold White (who’s taken the lead in all this) announced that he and his collaborators had brought the negative mass/energy requirements down to around -700kg.
The trick, it seems, is instead of a warp bubble, you construct your ship with two warp rings. One at the front to compress space, and one at the back to expand it. (Which is the design that Mark Rademaker’s amazing images are based on.)
Even more astounding than this mathematical feat is the fact that Prof. White has devised an experiment to test (in very small scale) our ability to warp space!
The basic idea of the experiment is this: A laser beam is split and directed at two targets an equal distance away. Along one path a “space warping” device is inserted. If, when the device is turned on, that laser beam takes a longer (or shorter) amount of time to reach its destination than the other beam, that’s a pretty good indication that space has been warped a tiny amount.
It’s actually a fairly simple and ingenious experiment, which will allow them to test a variety of ways to warp space. But, at this point in time, the results of all their experiments have been inconclusive.
Unfortunately, like space itself, facts are cold and harsh. As much fun as Mr. Rademaker’s images are to look at, and as much as I’d love to board the first warp transport to Kepler-186f (one of the most Earth-like planets yet found), the technical challenges are immense (negative matter, remember?), so it’s probably not going to happen in our lifetime.
But, that’s OK. I don’t have to travel to the stars just yet, and neither do you. But, one day, humanity as a species must make the leap out to the stars. Fortunately, its the nature of science to keep pushing forward and solving what today might seem to be impossible problems. That’s good for us as a species, because otherwise we’ll eventually share the same fate as the dinosaurs: wiped out by time and random chance.