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Space & Astronomy

Could warp drive actually become a reality ?

April 26, 2021 · Comment icon 64 comments

Could warp drive be the answer to interstellar space travel ? Image Credit: NASA
The idea of using warp drive to travel across large distances is not as far-fetched as it might seem.
Physicist Mario Borunda from Oklahoma State University investigates.

The closest star to Earth is Proxima Centauri. It is about 4.25 light-years away, or about 25 trillion miles (40 trillion km). The fastest ever spacecraft, the now- in-space Parker Solar Probe will reach a top speed of 450,000 mph. It would take just 20 seconds to go from Los Angeles to New York City at that speed, but it would take the solar probe about 6,633 years to reach Earth's nearest neighboring solar system.

If humanity ever wants to travel easily between stars, people will need to go faster than light. But so far, faster-than-light travel is possible only in science fiction.

In Issac Asimov's Foundation series, humanity can travel from planet to planet, star to star or across the universe using jump drives. As a kid, I read as many of those stories as I could get my hands on. I am now a theoretical physicist and study nanotechnology, but I am still fascinated by the ways humanity could one day travel in space.

Some characters - like the astronauts in the movies "Interstellar" and "Thor" - use wormholes to travel between solar systems in seconds. Another approach - familiar to "Star Trek" fans - is warp drive technology. Warp drives are theoretically possible if still far-fetched technology. Two recent papers made headlines in March when researchers claimed to have overcome one of the many challenges that stand between the theory of warp drives and reality.

But how do these theoretical warp drives really work? And will humans be making the jump to warp speed anytime soon?

Compression and expansion

Physicists' current understanding of spacetime comes from Albert Einstein's theory of General Relativity. General Relativity states that space and time are fused and that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. General relativity also describes how mass and energy warp spacetime - hefty objects like stars and black holes curve spacetime around them. This curvature is what you feel as gravity and why many spacefaring heroes worry about "getting stuck in" or "falling into" a gravity well. Early science fiction writers John Campbell and Asimov saw this warping as a way to skirt the speed limit.

What if a starship could compress space in front of it while expanding spacetime behind it? "Star Trek" took this idea and named it the warp drive.

In 1994, Miguel Alcubierre, a Mexican theoretical physicist, showed that compressing spacetime in front of the spaceship while expanding it behind was mathematically possible within the laws of General Relativity. So, what does that mean? Imagine the distance between two points is 10 meters (33 feet). If you are standing at point A and can travel one meter per second, it would take 10 seconds to get to point B. However, let's say you could somehow compress the space between you and point B so that the interval is now just one meter. Then, moving through spacetime at your maximum speed of one meter per second, you would be able to reach point B in about one second. In theory, this approach does not contradict the laws of relativity since you are not moving faster than light in the space around you. Alcubierre showed that the warp drive from "Star Trek" was in fact theoretically possible.

Proxima Centauri here we come, right? Unfortunately, Alcubierre's method of compressing spacetime had one problem: it requires negative energy or negative mass.

A negative energy problem

Alcubierre's warp drive would work by creating a bubble of flat spacetime around the spaceship and curving spacetime around that bubble to reduce distances. The warp drive would require either negative mass - a theorized type of matter - or a ring of negative energy density to work. Physicists have never observed negative mass, so that leaves negative energy as the only option.

To create negative energy, a warp drive would use a huge amount of mass to create an imbalance between particles and antiparticles. For example, if an electron and an antielectron appear near the warp drive, one of the particles would get trapped by the mass and this results in an imbalance. This imbalance results in negative energy density. Alcubierre's warp drive would use this negative energy to create the spacetime bubble.

But for a warp drive to generate enough negative energy, you would need a lot of matter. Alcubierre estimated that a warp drive with a 100-meter bubble would require the mass of the entire visible universe.

In 1999, physicist Chris Van Den Broeck showed that expanding the volume inside the bubble but keeping the surface area constant would reduce the energy requirements significantly, to just about the mass of the sun. A significant improvement, but still far beyond all practical possibilities.

A sci-fi future?

Two recent papers - one by Alexey Bobrick and Gianni Martire and another by Erik Lentz - provide solutions that seem to bring warp drives closer to reality.

Bobrick and Martire realized that by modifying spacetime within the bubble in a certain way, they could remove the need to use negative energy. This solution, though, does not produce a warp drive that can go faster than light.

Independently, Lentz also proposed a solution that does not require negative energy. He used a different geometric approach to solve the equations of General Relativity, and by doing so, he found that a warp drive wouldn't need to use negative energy. Lentz's solution would allow the bubble to travel faster than the speed of light.

It is essential to point out that these exciting developments are mathematical models. As a physicist, I won't fully trust models until we have experimental proof. Yet, the science of warp drives is coming into view. As a science fiction fan, I welcome all this innovative thinking. In the words of Captain Picard, things are only impossible until they are not.

Mario Borunda, Associate Professor of Physics, Oklahoma State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

Read the original article. The Conversation

Source: The Conversation | Comments (64)

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Recent comments on this story
Comment icon #55 Posted by Manwon Lender 3 years ago
Cookie I do  want to clarify something, your comments above are approximately correct that a Spacecraft could reach Alpha Centauri in a time frame that you expressed theoretically. However, the projects you outlined are for an unmanned Probe using lasers light and a Light fully deployed Light Sail. The project is called Project Dragon Fly and the studies began in 2016. Now the velocity or speed of travel has been estimated to be from 5% to 20% of light speed depending upon the site you get your information from. So in reality your comments are only theoretical and are not based proven facts ... [More]
Comment icon #56 Posted by Cookie Monster 3 years ago
I am tempted not to reply for the peace and quiet lol. Special Relativity was Einstein`s attempt at a Unified Field Theory. He failed to unify the four forces. Only recently has String Theory come along which is our current best attempt at unifying them. With General Relativity (as I have already said) it doesnt explain how gravity works at small and very large distances. At the small scale thats why quantum theories of gravity have been in development. Same with the large although all the media attention with that is on keeping GR while searching for a different reason such as dark matter to ... [More]
Comment icon #57 Posted by Manwon Lender 3 years ago
Your comments and I quote: The fan boys look for other reasons rather than address how the formulae are wrong, such as hunting for dark matter. Einstein`s Special Relativity failed, he was never able to unify the 4 known forces.  Prove GR is wrong, if what your saying is true then provide a scientific paper by another physicist that is excepted by the community at large that any part of GR has been proven wrong. Physicists have been attempting to prove that SR and GR are wrong since the theories were published and to date no one has succeeded. In fact in almost every case while trying t... [More]
Comment icon #58 Posted by Grey Area 3 years ago
GR and SR are generally held to be the most reliable deions of the nature of the physical universe so far. The mere fact that since the early 20th century entirely new branches of science were developed simply to expand on Einstein’s theories instead of replacing them, should indicate that Relativity is a safe bet. Relativity in my opinion, with all the observations we have made to back it up is most certainly not wrong.  It’s not complete though.
Comment icon #59 Posted by Cookie Monster 3 years ago
I just told you what was wrong with them, in physics not my own opinion.
Comment icon #60 Posted by Manwon Lender 3 years ago
Your word is just an opinion without a source, nothing more!
Comment icon #61 Posted by Cookie Monster 3 years ago
No, its a sign of your inability to even enter in `flaws of general relativity` into a search engine. Here you go, my top search result
Comment icon #62 Posted by Manwon Lender 3 years ago
Very interesting site, thanks sharing, however you still have not proven your point. To be very honest though I never expected you, but at least you tried. I have followed some Professor Smoots work, it was at one time required reading and there is no doubt he is a very brilliant man, and a Nobel Laureate.
Comment icon #63 Posted by Cookie Monster 3 years ago
So you dont even know what you read? `General Relativity Failed to Be Quantized` read it. 
Comment icon #64 Posted by Cookie Monster 3 years ago
QM says that matter and forces come in discrete quantities. But GR gives you answers for gravity that have infinite decimal places. There isn`t much difference between 1 and 1.00000321. At our planet level of reality it means that GRs answers appear to be correct. When you get down to the atomic level though that difference is huge and means GR doesnt even come close to describing how gravity works at the microscopic level. At the `galacto-scopic level` the vast distances involved also up differences between what GR says and the strength of gravity. Special Relativity could not unite gravity... [More]

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