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Warp Speed: What Is It And Will It Ever Be Possible?

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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.

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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.

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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.

Alcubierre Theory:

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 Problem:

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.

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Conclusion

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.

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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.

 

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12 Comments »

  1. Russell Adam Web,
    Pretty good write-up overall, you did some research, Tau-Zero Foundation, etc.

    The only thing you are mistaken on is Einstein “versus” Alcubierre (or Jose Natario). It is NOT “versus”! If the two were to meet, they WOULD be in agreement, because Alcubierre equations are derivations taking Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity into account. They would be in agreement, at least by the math. Alubierre and Natario’s equations are within the frame-work of Special Relativity. The Layman’s explanation is the ship would be well under the speed of light (even nearly stationary in a bubble of regular space) it would be space itself that would envelope the bubble the ship is in and warp space around the bubble beyond FTL speeds. Special Relativity does NOT prohibit this. Einstein would be delighted and in agreement. Now, Einstein would have something negative to say about the outrageous energy requirements even of Dr. Whites reduced energy methods of the Alcubierre metric from changing the shape, thickness and oscillating the energy waves… even then the power requirements are still so, so, so far beyond “Ludicrous”, it’s not doable. (Even Alcubierre himself is depressed by the energy densities involved) Also the dark matter dark energy physics (unknown, does it even exist…), controlling gravity waves, signal control tech would have to be faster than light as well, big radiation issues, not to mention integrating so many different technologies that are far, far, FAR beyond us. The truth is we do not know if FTL via warp speed is possible, only that the math for BOTH Einstein and (Alcubierre-Natario) are both in agreement and CANNOT rule out the theoretical possibility of FTL warp speed travel… At this point in history, FTL warp speed travel is at the “scientific speculation” phase, not even an early theory yet, too many unknowns.
    Dr. Sten Odenwald has a blog entitled “The Dismal Outlook of Interstellar Travel” comments are closed, but his main theme is: The Solar System Comes First, and it does. Not just a few probes, but colonization and industrialization, mining the asteroid belts for rare Earth minerals, mining the atmosphere of Jupiter for H3 for Fusion generators which we do not yet have, but should get fusion generation in the next 100 years. The Solar System can keep us very well occupied for 500 years or so. The stars are too far away for many centuries beyond that even, but the Solar System still has a great deal to offer. For the stars…Dr. Odenwald thinks probably NEVER, but…perhaps in a millennium or two… or if we get help from outside our own world-from outside our own solar system… So I would not say never. Without help… a thousand to a few thousand years…….

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  2. Oh, about your color flat screens and smart phone comment… Well… SO sad and too bad… Moore’s Law does NOT… does NOT apply to interstellar travel. Moore’s law is the quadrupling of computer memory every 18 months to two years… Smart phones, nano-computers, the internet, etc… It is too bad that this tech does NOT apply to warp drive !!!!!!!! Heavy Transportation tech, materials science, power generation, heavy mechanics, high energy physics, do NOT advance nearly as fast as your smart phone has. A 707 Airliner from 1958 is just as fast (actually slightly faster) than jet liners TODAY… cars… it takes longer to drive across almost ANY city today than 50 years ago, and our cars are NOT much faster. Example 1964 Shelby 427 Cobra (this is NOT a Mustang, but this 1964 Hulked – Out MG Midget looking Roadster is ALOT quicker than any 2017 stock Mustang today). Rockets… space travel… The Saturn 5 (circa 1969) out-performs ANY rocket in existence TODAY. Oh, Concord… Sooo sad !!! NOT flying we have actually slowed down !!! IN the 1960’s they had Popular Science magazine’s with titles like New York to the Orient in two or three hours by the year 2000 !!! Well, that was 17 years ago… and a 1958 Boeing707 airliner can outrun the South West Airliner you fly on today…..
    Moore”s Law DOES NOT apply to interstellar travel.

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  3. If it was possible, and there are other living planets in the universe it would already have been done, and they would be visiting us. Nevertheless we will keep trying, because innovation is what humans do.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The newest calculations from recent Extra-Solar planet data and the old Drake equation show on the low side, advanced civilizations well beyond Human level tech are spaced out on average, about 2,000 light years apart, and on the high side, about 200 light years part. Not enough time for our radio signals to be detected from Earth, in either case. Not to mention that our signals, from Radio, TV to X-band radar and S-band emission’s would be next to impossible to detect… Example, if there were an identical twin Earth Civilization orbiting Alpha Centauri just 4.4 Earth Light years away, we could NOT detect our identical twin – selves, even with the 1000 ft wide Arecibo radio telescope, with out multi-decade long observations. Regardless, there is a good chance “they” have been here, but purposely keep a low profile…

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      • Excellent. Really appreciate when people push back against this concept of “the great silence”. The so-called Fermi-paradox isn’t one. There are a number of very plausible ideas as to why we haven’t observed extraterrestrial activity that don’t require an ominous Great Filter. The best explanation I’ve seen so far comes from author Karl Schroeder that paraphrases Asimov’s famous line to: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from nature”.
        We’ve seen enough evidence from our own technology that contrary to the outdated Kardashev scale as technology improves it becomes smaller, more energy efficient and blends into the background of our daily lives. Where would that trend take us in a few hundred years? A few thousand? Our technology -and likely there’s – would be indistinguishable from natural processes.

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  4. Alcubierre (and others) have stated several times – sometimes forcefully – that the Alcubierre theory does not, in any way, violate Einstein’s theories. There is no(thing) travelling faster than light where a warp field is created (according to Alcubierre’s paper). Space itself is moving and it so happens we know that part is possible because our galaxy has traveled farther than it could have if space were limited to the speed of light.

    There’s currently only two practical reasons why Alcubierre’s theory can’t be checked: one is that even though Harold White (NASA) has tweaked Alcubierre’s math reducing the fuel required to create the field from a mass the size of Jupiter down to the size of Voyager II we still couldn’t make enough of the fuel that would be required currently. That limitation has a little more to do with the cost of creating that much fuel but also the technical problem of containing it (decades of Tokamak fusion research has given us fairly robust ways of containing similar things and that could be repurposed for warp fuel).

    The second limitation could be the biggest roadblock however and that’s the exotic material that would be used in the torus that forms and shapes the warp bubble. Exotic material is predicted but not proven to exist. Harold Whites approach involves a casimir effect I don’t quite understand but has the potential to at least allow us to test aspects of a warp generator.

    If we can manage to keep level heads and not get caught up in personal biases and egotistical intransigence some of us have to theories that offend us for some reason and just pretend for a minute were on the side of science. Period. Regardless where it leads or who gets credit.

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    • Yes Paul Davis, you are correct….The Alcubierre metric does NOT violate General Relativity when considered from a mathematical perspective, but to create an FTL star ship via warp drive is only mathematically theoretically possible under such LUDICROUS conditions that it “may” never be possible. For example, even Dr. Whites reduced energy requirements are still ludicrously large at 500 KG to 1000 KG of mass a 100 % annihilated per second of operation at 10 C. Ten times light speed for a shuttle craft the size of a Chevy Suburban. More unknowns: Dr. White’s energy reduction method utilizes a way from oscillating the field to reducing the effective width of the Suburban down to near microscopic proportions… (Not sure what the physics is behind that.. and neither is anyone else on Earth) THEN there is the Dark matter/energy thing (it’s theoretical), and oh by the way, for this warp bubble to work, it requires a communication system that is itself, FTL… (perhaps tachyons… those are theoretical as well, because quantum tunneling will likely not work).. Then the radiation would dwarf T-Zar Bomba at point blank range (the most powerful H-bomb) Not to mention al the engineering challenges to “warp level engineering tech”, are far, Far, FAR, FAR, (and then some more) beyond the Tomahawk and Z-Pinch lazer confinement methods or “attempts”, which we have still not successfully demonstrated yet for positive gain Fusion power generation. Actually, I would wager the “tech level” engineering devices for FTL warp drive, compared to the engineering tech devices of a real working positive gain nuclear fusion generator for (which we don’t have yet) is akin to comparing the first use of sail power… a 3200 BC Egyptian Canoe like Reed boat to the U.S.S. Aircraft Carrier Nimitz. So.. we need to make a successful sail powered reed boat first… so its 3300 BC for us….or so… That’s why I laugh when I see Star Trek, though I like Star Trek.

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  5. I have almost no science knowledge except for the basics, yet I remember reading once that the bubble created by a warp drive would decimate the solar system it was trying to enter when the ship arrived. I am on a mobile and at lunch so I can’t provide the documentation to what I am saying/asking. Could or would this affect even trying FTL?

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