The World Just Moved Even Closer to a Real, Working Warp Drive
Just last week, scientists dropped a bombshell when they unveiled the first physical model for a warp drive, the holy grail of space travel that would allow us to bend the fabric of space and time to their will and overcome the vast distances separating humans from the stars. Now, another astrophysicist has delivered an equally exciting breakthrough.
Up until this point, scientists have slowly chipped away at the fantasy of faster-than-light (FTL) travel by relying on theories of bizarre physics and exotic matter. But in a new paper, Göttingen University’s Erik Lentz has created a theoretical design of a warp drive that’s actually grounded in conventional physics. Lentz’s theory overcomes the need for a source of exotic matter in previous designs by reimagining the shape of warped space.
The colloquial term “warp drive”
To put this into context, we’ll catch you up to (warp) speed. The colloquial term “warp drive” comes from science fiction, most famously Star Trek. The Federation’s FTL warp drive works by colliding matter and antimatter and converting the explosive energy to propulsion. Star Trek suggests this extraordinary power alone pushes the ship at FTL speeds.
The concept of a warp drive is so tantalizing simply because space is really, really big. It would take a modern, chemically burning rocket more than 100,000 years to travel to Alpha Centauri, our nearest star system. Even if we traveled at the speed of light—which is conventionally impossible—a one-way voyage would still take four years. Without it, we’re probably never making it to a neighboring star system.
Our current understanding of warp speed dates back to 1994, when a now-iconic theoretical physicist named Miguel Alcubierre first proposed what we’ve called the Alcubierre drive ever since. The Alcubierre drive conforms to Einstein’s theory of general relativity to achieve superluminal travel.
“By a purely local expansion of spacetime behind the spaceship and an opposite contraction in front of it,” Alcubierre wrote in his paper’s abstract, “motion faster than the speed of light as seen by observers outside the disturbed region is possible.”
Essentially, an Alcubierre drive would expend a tremendous amount of energy—likely more than what’s available within the universe—to contract and twist space-time in front of it and create a bubble. Inside that bubble would be an inertial reference frame where explorers would feel no proper acceleration. The rules of physics would still apply within the bubble, but the ship would be localized outside of space.
Alcubierre’s idea rests on expending stupendous amounts of energy to create a bubble of exotic matter—in this case, negative energy. The problem? There’s no mechanism known to particle physics capable of creating this negative energy.
That leads us to Lentz’s paper, which appears in the new issue of the peer-reviewed journal Classical and Quantum Gravity. In it, Lentz reveals a new method of creating a warp drive using conventional physics and without the need for undiscovered forms of exotic matter.
After studying existing research on warp drives, Lentz realized there were specific forms of spacetime bubbles that scientists had overlooked. These bubbles took the shape of solitons, or compact waves that maintain their whip while moving at constant velocity. (Think of a single ripple steadily moving across a calm lake.) Lentz rederived Einstein’s equations for different soliton configurations until he found one that worked with conventional energy sources and without the need for any exotic matter.
“This work has moved the problem of faster-than-light travel one step away from theoretical research in fundamental physics and closer to engineering,” Lentz said in a statement:
“The next step is to figure out how to bring down the astronomical amount of energy needed to within the range of today’s technologies, such as a large modern nuclear fission power plant. Then we can talk about building the first prototypes.”
Lentz’s warp bubble still doesn’t overcome one of the biggest hurdles of FTL travel: the immense amount of energy required to warp spacetime.
Creating a warp bubble for a 656-foot-wide spacecraft traveling at the speed of light requires roughly 100 times the energy contained in the mass of Jupiter, said Lentz. That’s about 30 orders of magnitude higher than the power of modern nuclear reactors. “Fortunately, several energy-saving mechanisms have been proposed in earlier research that can potentially lower the energy required by nearly 60 orders of magnitude,” he said.
The plasmas surrounding
In the meantime, Lentz believes the plasmas surrounding extremely magnetic neutron stars may be a natural place to look for the signatures of positive-energy solitons.
Elsewhere, scientists in the Advanced Propulsion Lab (APL) at Applied Physics just published the world’s first model for a physical warp drive in Classical and Quantum Gravity. Like Lentz’s research, this model also flies in the face of what we’ve long thought about warp speed travel: that it requires exotic, negative forces.
Where the existing paradigm uses negative energy, the APL concept also uses floating bubbles of spacetime rather than floating ships in spacetime. Though Alcubierre himself has endorsed this model, the concept is still very much in the “far future” zone of possibility, made of ideas that scientists still don’t know how to construct in any sense. The APL scientists write:
“While the mass requirements needed for such modifications are still enormous at present, our work suggests a method of constructing such objects based on fully understood laws of physics.”
Let’s hope the “far future” isn’t as far as it sounds. If scientists keep achieving warp drive breakthroughs, that might be the case.
In the meantime, science moves forward. And while NASA is not pursuing interstellar flight with warp drive theory , scientists here continue to advance ion propulsion for missions to deep space and beyond using solar electric power. This form of propulsion is the fastest and most efficient to date. There are many “absurd” theories that have become reality over the years of scientific research. But for the near future, warp drive remains a dream.