Could Warp Drive Become a Reality?

The physics behind the warp drive (Richard Obousy and Gerald Cleaver)
The physics behind the warp drive (Richard Obousy and Gerald Cleaver)

In science fiction, the “warp drive” helps Captain Kirk, Jean-Luc Picard, Commander Janeway and Benjamin Sisko potter around space with ease. Without warp speed, TV episodes of Star Trek would stretch into months and seasons would last decades. Alas, even science fiction succumbs to the laws of relativity: Nothing, not even light (or a Klingon) can travel faster than the speed of light. As I researched for a recent Universe Today article, the space between the stars is prohibitively large, even the nearest star is over 4 light years away (Proxima Centauri), so how could it be possible for USS Enterprise to flit from one star system to the next without putting a dent in Einstein’s theory of relativity? The answer comes if we realise that although light speed is a physical limit on how fast things can travel through space-time, there is no limit on how fast space-time can travel if it is warped. Suddenly we have a theoretically possible means of travelling between the stars by altering the fabric of the Universe in a warp “bubble”…

On writing the article “How Long Would it Take to Travel to the Nearest Star?,” I quickly realised that there is pretty much zero chance of mankind reaching the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, which is located a pedestrian 4.22 light years away. Even if we used the fastest theoretically possible nuclear pulse propulsion, we could only reach a tiny fraction of the speed of light (c). In a best case scenario, it might take us around 80 years to get to the nearest star. If we had hopes of becoming a cosmic colonization heavyweight, we’d need to think again.

It’s one of those perfect writer’s moments: you finish one article, only to find another perfect news-worthy subject that slots right in place. In the article I wrote a few hours ago (“Bad Move Buzz, Science Fiction DOES NOT Make Space Boring“), Buzz Aldrin’s misconception about the usefulness of science fiction on motivating younger generations to learn more about space science was discussed. Then, I read the arXiv Blog to see a short review about some research into the sci-fi warp drive. Although it’s late, I think this article is worth burning the midnight oil over.

USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D (
USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D uses a warp drive

Back in 1994, Michael Alcubierre, a physicist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, put together a formalized paper about the possibility of travelling faster than light by warping space-time. Of course, the idea for warping space to make space travel easier on TV audiences had been around for many years before then, but this was the first attempt at turning science fiction into science fact (or at least theory). Basically, the “Alcubierre Bubble” would be a region of space a spacecraft would generate, where space-time is compressed in front, but stretched out behind. The region in the middle (where the spacecraft is) would remain normal. In this case, the spaceship would effectively be stationary, but the bubble would able to travel anywhere in space at any speed.

Now two physicists at Baylor University in Texas think that recent developments in superstring theory may help the Alcubierre Bubble to have a more solid foundation. Gerald Cleaver and Richard Obousy believe there may be a way to change the dimensions of the curled microscopic dimensions we cannot usually experience (as predicted by superstrings and brane theory). If some distortion is possible, then compressing and stretching space-time may be a possibility, allowing the formation of an Alcubierre Bubble.

The basic idea is that by altering the radius of an extra dimension, it would be possible, in principle, to adjust the energy density of spacetime.” – Cleaver and Obousy.

However, an estimate of the energy required to perform space-time distortion on demand is huge. 1045 Joules would be required to generate a space-time bubble large enough for travelling around the cosmos – to put this into context, the spaceship would require the same energy that would be generated from converting the total mass of Jupiter into energy.

Still, at least it’s a start…

Source: arXiv Blog
Paper: arXiv:0807.1957v2 [physics.pop-ph]

15 thoughts on “Could Warp Drive Become a Reality?”

  1. A warp “bubble” may not be necessary. Rather than having to generate astonishing amounts of energy to create a huge warp bubble, there should be a simpler solution.

    Imagine a dumbell shaped craft that has a flat plate on the front and another on the back. A very thin warp field perhaps only a few microns thick would be generated on the front and on the back disks. The one on the front disk would compress space-time, the one on the back would expand it. Very much less area and thus very much less negative mass would be required.

  2. Here’s a semi-solid suggestion for advancing Alcubierre theory:
    A scientific/technical contest to compose a metric with reasonably economical energy requirements for an Alcubierre-style “warp drive”. Specifically, what I’m suggesting is a prize for whomever formulates a “usable” warp bubble geometry. The winner would receive, say, a billion euros. Or less.

  3. I think we need to start small, start experiments attempting to make a photon exceed C in a confined space. This would pave the way for FTL computer processing and communications. If we could change the rules in a small space ex. make C 400,000mps instead of 186,000mps…hmm (Cern help us out here)

  4. Well a 100 years ago if u said people were gona fly in huge metal planes in the sky, you would have been burned as a warlock, but now we fly and more (space, super sonic speed …etc).NOW lets think in 50 years what will people say about us??? I say FTL drives are so close to being achived its not even funny we just need to imagine our goal and the universe will give us the way to do it. its true things seem dire now, but only if your the kind of person who thinks the cup is half empty.and did I say in 50 years,….. try 10 🙂

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