Warp Speed: What Is It And Will It Ever Be Possible?
The deciding factor in my preference of Star Trek over Star Wars has always been the technology. My girlfriend laughs when I say that ST is better than SW because the technology is real, or at least based on real concepts whereas SW is, for the most part, fictional. She then reminds me that a Ferengi gets turned on when you massage his ears and Q is a god.
In my defense, I still think I am actually right in this. Although many of the technologies used in Star Trek are often under-explained and glossed over, science advisers were brought in on each incarnation of the show to give advice on the realms of possibility. People like André Bormanis who worked on a few different seasons were often called on to ‘science-check’ the scripts and the special effects.
One of the most important technologies that Federation ships are equipped with is the warp engine. This engine, fueled by Dilithium crystals, allows spaceships to travel at phenomenal speeds and visit worlds that are many light-years from Earth. The speed is FTL, or Faster Than Light, and there are theories behind whether or not it is achievable. Einstein said no, as nothing with mass can travel faster than the speed of light. My understanding of Star Trek warp speed is that it follows the Alcubierre theory on FTL travel, where an object inside a bubble that is moving at the speed of light is not actually moving. If the space-time is collapsed in front of the bubble, then the bubble, including the ship, passes through quicker than the speed of light. This makes sense to me as the often talk of a warp field around the ship when the ship is travelling at this speed.
I don’t think Einstein and Alcubierre ever met, because I think they would have had a rather big disagreement. In Einstein’s celebrated work, the Special Theory of Relativity, he fervently implied that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. If we are ever going to get to another world outside of our own solar system, we are going to need Einstein to be wrong, for once. Alcubierre was a Mexican physicist who stated that fabric of space-time could be stretched and moved, allowing an object to pass through at faster than the speed of light. For Star Trek to happen in real life, we need this dude to be correct.
To put it simply, this method of space travel involves stretching the fabric of space-time in a wave which would (in theory) cause the space ahead of an object to contract while the space behind it would expand. An object inside this wave (i.e. a spaceship) would then be able to ride this region, known as a “warp bubble” of flat space. This is what is known as the “Alcubierre Metric.” Interpreted in the context of General Relativity, the metric allows a warp bubble to appear in a previously flat region of space-time and move away, effectively at speeds that exceed the speed of light. The interior of the bubble is the inertial reference frame for any object inhabiting it.
Einstein might have disagreed with the theory, but there is a way that they can both be right. Considering that the region of space is moving, and not the ship itself, normal conventions would not apply. Time dilation doesn’t happen and as such, no breaks in the rulebook of space-time and the laws of relativity would have been made. Everyone would be happy campers.
The Alcubierre drive remains a theory for a very good reason. The reason that we haven’t tested and confirmed the theory yet is that we can’t. We don’t actually have a way of creating the bubble that would be needed for FTL travel. There are also no known ways to create a warp bubble, but if anyone knows please give me a call and we can go from there.
The Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Project (BPP) was created by NASA to research and develop methods of getting ships to incredible speeds. Unfortunately they made very little progress and as such, the funding was cut. They broke away and created the Tau Zero Foundation which concentrates on studying theories of interstellar travel. NASA announced back in 2012 that they were researching warp drive and hoping to determine whether or not it was possible. They continued on the work done by Alcubierre and projected the possible effects of expanding and contracting space-time.
“We’ve initiated an interferometer test bed in this lab, where we’re going to go through and try and generate a microscopic instance of a little warp bubble. And although this is just a microscopic instance of the phenomena, we’re perturbing space time, one part in 10 million, a very tiny amount… The math would allow you to go to Alpha Centauri in two weeks as measured by clocks here on Earth. So somebody’s clock onboard the spacecraft has the same rate of time as somebody in mission control here in Houston might have. There are no tidal forces, no undue issues, and the proper acceleration is zero. When you turn the field on, everybody doesn’t go slamming against the bulkhead, (which) would be a very short and sad trip.” – Dr. Harold Sonny White – NASA researcher
The results of the tests were inconclusive and researchers gave opposing theories and suggestions as to what happened and whether it could be done.
Unfortunately warp drive will remain a theory for a while yet. The brightest minds on the planet have yet to prove that it is even possible, despite several theories giving suggestions on how to do it. We have a strong theory from Alcubierre, and an opposing argument from Einstein.
The need for FTL travel will not go away. As our telescope and imaging equipment improves, so will our wonder at the cosmos. We are finding exoplanets now that have extremely high chances of being able to sustain life of some kind and should we ever get proof that life exists elsewhere in the universe, you can bet that we will want to go meet them. Even if they are giant green, slimy creatures with a thirst for human blood, someone will want to go and say hello. The problem is that It will take many thousands of years to reach even our closest stellar neighbors and in the ‘age of impatience’ we are not going to want to wait that long.
What seems impossible now usually ends up the norm of future generations. Take color screens on cellphones for example; we would have considered it impossible 20 years ago, and yet now it seems odd to think that their might have been a time before Android. We will get there, we just have to wait a bit.
What do you think? Will we achieve FTL travel? And if so when? Let me know in the comments below or head to my Facebook page.