As anyone with an interest in science fiction will know, space is the final frontier.
Captain’s Kirk and Jean-Luc Picard boldly went were no one had gone before. They sought out new life and new civilizations and they explored strange new worlds. Why? Because they had the Starship Enterprise and it had a warp drive.
Gene Roddenberry’s revolutionary warp drive idea, the mainstay behind the entire Star Trek franchise, enabled the crew of the Enterprise and other ships to travel the universe at faster than light (FTL) speeds, thus enabling them to find those strange new worlds and interact with their occupants.
In the real world, practical FTL travel is physically impossible, but the warp drive functioned by enveloping the ship in a bubble of “normal space”, while distorting the space in front and behind it.
The ship doesn’t actually travel faster than the speed of light, the space around it does. The physics behind the warp drive does not violate any of the laws of relativity, but the ridiculously large amounts of energy needed to create the bubble itself have made the theory a non-starter for most scientists.
Creating a Space Wave
That is not the case with Mexican theoretical physicist Miguel Alcubierre, however.
In 1994, Alcubierre proposed the idea that by creating a wave that would contract the space in front of it and expand the space behind, a spacecraft inside the wave would effectively be able to travel faster than the speed of light.
Just like in the Star Trek universe, the ship inside the bubble would not be moving, the space around it would. The so-called “Alcubierre Drive” still suffered from the same – seemingly insurmountable – energy requirements needed to create the bubble, but the physics behind the drive were sound (1).
Now, almost 20 years after the idea was first presented, the Alcubierre Drive has been given a new lease on life by scientists at NASA.
The original idea called for an oval shaped craft attached to the centre of a very large ring. The ring, made up of an as yet unknown material more commonly known as “exotic matter”, would be what warps the space around the ship, but is also the device which needs all of that energy.
After examining the problem at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Harold “Sonny” White and his team now believe that modifications to the ring surrounding the craft would bring those massive energy requirements down to a more plausible level.
Achieving Interstellar Space Flight
Speaking at the “100 Year Starship Symposium”, a gathering of scientists and researchers who are interested in the goal of achieving interstellar space flight, Sonny White explained that by changing the shape from a flat ring to that of a rounded donut, the drive could be powered by a mass the size of the Voyager 1 spacecraft.
In other words, the equivalent of an average size family car!
He also said that by oscillating the intensity of the warp field over a period of time, the energy requirements would come down even further (2).
The idea sounds almost too good to be true, and there is a long way to go yet before we will know if a warp drive really is possible. For one thing, the “Exotic Matter” needed to power the drive is not something that can be picked up from the local grocery store. It needs to be discovered or invented first.
White said an experiment at the Johnson Space Center is planned in order to see if they can create a micro version of a space time warp, one that will “perturb space-time by one part in 10 million”.
We will await those results with great interest. These could be the first steps on a journey that could take us to the other side of the galaxy and beyond. To boldly go, as it were.
Now, where did I put those dilithium crystals?