Warp Drives and… Black Holes?

black-hole-aurora

Why do all roads seem to lead to black holes? Man made black holes are supposedly going to be produced by the Large Hadron Collider, swallowing Earth (or, at least, a large fraction of Europe), so it seems only logical that something like a warp drive — a technology of the uber-future requiring uber-energies — would also generate a black hole, right?

Yes, we are talking about a vastly theoretical technology, but according to Italian researchers, the spaceship propulsion device popularized by Star Trek could have grave consequences for Planet Earth.

Over the past week, I’ve been deep inside the science behind faster-than-light-speed propulsion and time travel as a part of the Discovery Space Wide Angle: Surfing Spacetime, and I feel well versed in the astounding physics that could make warp speed a possibility in the future. All this started when interviewing one of the leading authorities on warp drive propulsion, Dr Richard Obousy, who is not only upbeat about the possibilities of the futuristic warpship, he’s done the math to prove that a sufficiently advanced civilization could “surf” on a spacetime wave.

However, there’s a catch. Well, two.

Firstly, we need to develop an understanding for dark energy. And second, we need a gargantuan energy source.

Dark energy is a cosmological theory that explains the continued expansion of the universe. This energy pervades all of the cosmos, explaining everything from the grouping of galactic clusters to the faster-than-light-speed inflationary period immediately after the Big Bang. There’s a lot of indirect observation of dark energy and its effects on spacetime. It’s out there, but it’s a tough proposition to think we might be able to harness it someday. But then again, we said that about electricity once, who knows what technological revolutions await us in the decades and centuries ahead.

Assuming we find a way of harnessing dark energy, how can we use it? This is where visionary physicists like Dr Obousy come in. Skipping over the superstring small-print of extra-dimensional theory, we basically need a huge amount of energy to manipulate the universal dark energy, thereby shrinking and expanding vanishingly small dimensions beyond our three dimensional universe.

So how much energy is needed warp spacetime, allowing a futuristic spaceship to zip through space? “Some back of the envelope calculations I performed last year indicated approximately the mass energy contained within the planet Jupiter,” Richard told me.

This sounds like a lot of energy! However, there’s a trend, the rest mass energy of Jupiter is actually an improvement on previous warp drive calculations. “The very early warp drive calculations indicated that one would need more mass energy than was available within the entire universe… that’s TRILLIONS of Jupiters!

This improvement is down to recent developments in superstring theory and quantum dynamics. It would appear that the energy requirements for a warp drive improves with developments in physics. If this trend continues, we may find other energy saving ways to make a warpship a reality.

However, there are some practical issues putting the breaks on travelling at warp speed. Only recently, I reported on a study focusing on quantum fluctuations as the warp “bubble” (containing our warpship) blasts through the light speed barrier: the occupants could get roasted by Hawking Radiation.

Today, another problem has surfaced from the extreme warp equations: black holes (who would have guessed?). Italian physicist Stefano Finazzi of Italy’s International School for Advanced Studies has crunched the numbers and wondered about what would happen when the energy runs out. It’s all very well generating a Jupiter’s rest mass-worth of energy, but how will it be sustained by the warp drive? What will happen when all the energy is depleted?

Eventually the energy would run out. The [warp] bubble would rupture, with catastrophic effects. Inside the bubble the temperature would rise to about 1032 degrees Kelvin, destroying almost anything on the bubble.Eric Bland, Discovery News

It gets better, Finazzi also predicts a fair amount of doom outside the warp bubble, too. “We know that the warp drive will be destabilized,” he added. “But we do not know if it will in the end explode or collapse to a black hole.”

Don’t go running out of gas any where near Earth is all I say

Although these implications of doom and gloom should have given Jean Luc Picard a panic attack whenever he said “engage!” or “make it so Number One…”, we have to remind ourselves warp drive propulsion isn’t even close to being a reality. Dr Obousy and warp scientists before him are only just beginning to assemble a theoretical framework around the sci-fi notion of warping spacetime, so to already be predicting warp speed fail seems a little premature in my opinion.

In response to the Hawking Radiation problem, Dr Obousy pointed out that if we get to the point of generating vast quantities of energy, harnessing the spacetime warping power of dark energy, we should be able to at least have a stab at finding solutions to these potential warp drive problems.

Objections are good, but usually we find smart ways of circumventing problems. Humans are good at that,” he said.

I agree.