Warp Drive In Our Lifetime?

Dr. Harold White, Advanced Propulsion team leader for NASA’s Engineering DirectorateDr. Harold White, Advanced Propulsion team leader for NASA’s Engineering Directorate recently said, “Perhaps a Star Trek experience within our lifetime is not such a remote possibility.” Dr. White isn’t just talking about the theoretical possibility of a warp drive; he and the rest of the Advanced Propulsion team has begun working on actually creating one.

Yes, Virginia, there really IS a warp drive. Space exploration is still in its infancy. We’ve made it to the moon, we’ve sent robots to Mars, probes to Venus (although we haven’t found a way to design one which can survive the extreme heat and pressure there for long) and the Voyager spacecraft are reaching the very edges of the solar system. However, we’re still a very long way from being the kind of space faring species we’ll need to be if we hope to outlive our own planet.

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  • To read his 33 page PDF report on Warp Drive feasibility, go here.
  • To learn more about the Icarus Interstellar Project, go here.

With our current level of technology, interstellar travel is virtually impossible. The amount of fuel needed to get to even the closest star (Proxima Centauri, about 4.22 light years away) is enormous and even with the fastest of experimental propulsion systems, it would still take tens of thousands of years. It’s simply not worth doing, at least not with the technology we have now. Obviously, it’s going to take a different approach – something which allows a spacecraft to travel as close as possible to the speed of light.

Warp Bubbles

Every schoolchild knows that you can’t exceed the speed of light, but Dr. White and other scientists think that there may be loopholes in this law of nature which could allow us to warp the fabric of space-time. That’s what Dr. White’s team is looking for at NASA Eagleworks at the Johnson Space Center. They’re working on, in Dr. White’s words, “an interferometer test bed that will try to generate and detect a microscopic instance of a little warp bubble,” with an instrument called a White-Juday WarpField Interferometer.

Warp Speed AheadWhile the team may be trying to create microscopic warp bubbles now, the possibilities are anything but. According to Dr. White, “Although this is just a tiny instance of the phenomena, it will be existence proof for the idea of perturbing space time-a “Chicago pile” moment, as it were. Recall that December of 1942 saw the first demonstration of a controlled nuclear reaction that generated a whopping half watt. This existence proof was followed by the activation of a ~ four megawatt reactor in November of 1943. Existence proof for the practical application of a scientific idea can be a tipping point for technology development.

How Will It Work?

This type of warp drive will allow superluminal travel by compressing space ahead of it and expanding the space behind it – in other words, moving a great distance while actually staying still. The drive is predicted not to have the same adverse consequences as other methods of space travel. Dr. White says that by using the principle of cosmic inflation, spacecraft may be able to travel at speeds which are unthinkable to us now.

How fast?

If things work out as Dr. White hopes, it may be possible to travel to Alpha Centauri in as little as two weeks. Dr. White claims that there will be no tidal forces inside of the warp bubble, since the acceleration is nil. When the warp drive is turned on, it won’t cause the crew to go flying, which would result in an incredibly short journey.

The problem that the Eagleworks team had to solve was where to find enough energy to power warp drives. It’s long been known that these drives were theoretically possible, but it was thought that powering them would take so much matter as to render them practically impossible. However, Dr. White has a solution which could make warp speed travel feasible.

The team has found that it actually takes far less fuel than previously believed to run a warp drive. In fact, by controlling the intensity of the warp bubbles and their thickness, the amount of fuel needed to send a 10 meter bubble at ten times the speed of light would be just 500 kg (about 1100 pounds). Of course, the ship won’t actually move faster than the speed of light, but the effect will be as if it was.

At this speed, it would be possible to reach the planet Gliese 581g, a planet which is the most Earthlike extrasolar world yet discovered, in a mere two years. That’s less time than it took Magellan to travel around the world; certainly, a four year roundtrip to visit a potentially Earthlike world is worthwhile. There are also much closer planets which we could send robots or manned missions, assuming that Dr. White’s warp drive can be built.

It’s not going to happen tomorrow and it’s probably not going to be a reality even ten years from now, but as Dr. White says, it’s not at all impossible that we could see warp drives in our lifetime. This may be the beginning of a new kind of space exploration and one which would allow us to finally leave the solar system and start seeing much more of our universe.

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