Take Us Up to Warp Speed, Mr. Sulu

December 2, 2012 in Science, Top News

Wormhole travel as envisioned by Les Bossinas

Wormhole travel as envisioned by Les Bossinas for NASA. Source: NASA.

We may be visiting planets outside the Solar System sooner than ever expected. Scientists have identified a total of 853 extrasolar planets or “exoplanets” as of Dec. 1 – all within our own Milky Way galaxy. They reside in 672 planetary systems, including 126 multiple planetary systems. NASA is officially working on warp drive technology that could enable us to reach distant locations in space that seemed beyond our limit up until now.

Warp drive technology uses the theory of special relativity against itself. Special relativity states that moving beyond the speed of light is a physical impossibility. How a warp drive works relates to its very name. Space-time is literally warped in front of and behind an object. The object isn’t actually moving—space is. There is no limitation on how fast space can expand and contract.

In 1994 Miguel Alcubierre was the first to demonstrate that this was mathematically possible. Previously, the concept was simply science fiction popularized by the “Star Trek” TV series. Here’s the catch: Alcubierre also postulated that it would take a mass of exotic energy the size of the planet Jupiter to power such a drive.

This seemed like a good hypothesis at the time, but impossibly out of reach. It may be within reach after all though according to physicist Harold White. Alcubierre had assumed one would use a drive shaped similarly to a flattened halo. White conceived a more interesting design. By shaping a warp drive in a thicker, curvier ring, one could power a warp drive using a fraction of the energy needed with the flatter design. In fact, as little as 50 kg (about 110 lbs.) of material would suffice.

White calls his design a toroidal ring. He hypothesizes that this particular shape would require far less energy to create a bubble within the ring. That bubble would create the necessary distortion in space time that effectively would hurtle a ship beyond the speed of light. White’s presentation at the 100 Year Starship 2012 Public Symposium proposes creation of a test in which a laser is split, guiding one of the beams through the warp field. If they are successful, the distortion would allow the slightest variation between the two beams.

The team exploring this concept claims that within our lifetime we have the potential to achieve effective speeds of 10c or more. As in the famous equation E = MC ^ 2, C is the speed of light. 10C is well over 1.8 million miles per second. Alpha Centauri might prove to be reachable within just a few months’ “trip time” in this scenario.

At the moment, scientists are trying to generate a warp field that would cause just a tiny distortion in space time. It would be on the scale of a ten-millionth of a change in the fabric of space-time, resulting in a 1/4 wavelength distortion between the two laser beams. Actually generating a field wide and powerful enough for interstellar travel may still seem like a distant goal, but theoretical barriers to the notion may be falling away.

Score another advance for science fiction’s predictive power in steering scientific research and technology efforts.