Once thought to be a completely fictional concept, what would intergalactic space exploration be like for we the human race if we were to figure out how to take the faster-than-light propulsion system known as warp drive we’ve seen used in great science fiction pop culture like Star Trek, and make it a reality?
Something so ambitious is still little more than a fantasy…but a fantasy of some of the smartest people to ever walk this planet. But even though it is still a fantasy, NASA doesn’t think the warp drive is as impossible as was once thought.
NASA’s Advanced Propulsion Theme Lead for their Engineering Directorate, Dr. Harold “Sonny” White, is so sure that warp drive is possible, that he’s already working on tests to successfully figure out how it works, saying “Perhaps a Star Trek experience within our lifetime is not such a remote possibility.”
White wrote about the breakthrough in an article co-authored by Catherine Ragin Williams Sure for Icarus Interstellar. Basically, the plan is for the Eagleworks Laboratories team to create a microscopic warp bubble using loopholes found in mathematical equations. If successful, this would give them the blueprints to grow the tests from there and eventually progress it to a much larger and much more useful warp bubble.
They explain it much better than I ever could, obviously, so here’s how they present it:
Those equations are tested using an instrument called the White-Juday Warp Field Interferometer. At JSC, Eagleworks has initiated an interferometer test bed that will try to generate and detect a microscopic instance of a little warp bubble. Although this is just a tiny instance of the phenomena, it will be existence proof for the idea of perturbing space timeâ€”a â€œChicago pileâ€ moment, as it were. Recall that December of 1942 saw the first demonstration of a controlled nuclear reaction that generated a whopping half watt. This existence proof was followed by the activation of a ~ four megawatt reactor in November of 1943. Existence proof for the practical application of a scientific idea can be a tipping point for technology development.
By harnessing the physics of cosmic inflation, future spaceships crafted to satisfy the laws of these mathematical equations may actually be able to get somewhere unthinkably fastâ€”and without adverse effects. The math would allow you to go to Alpha Centauri in two weeks as measured by clocks here on Earth. So somebodyâ€™s clock aboard the spacecraft has the same rate of time as somebody in mission control here in Houston might have. There are no tidal forces inside the bubble, no undue issues, and the proper acceleration is zero. When you turn the field on, everybody doesnâ€™t go slamming against the bulkhead, which would be a very short and sad trip.
Exactly. That’s what I was thinkin’ was what would need to be done, too.
The biggest problem with pulling this off has been finding the energy source to do it. When discussed strictly “academically,” it was estimated that an amount of exotic matter/negative pressure equal to the size of Jupiter would be required to create a “useful” warp bubble. The British Interplanetary Society estimated back in the ’70s that just to get to Barnard’s Star 6 light years or 380,000 astronomical units (380,000 trips from the sun to Earth) away in 50 years, it would require a 54,000-metric ton (119,050 lbs.) spacecraft (100 times the mass of the 400-metric ton International Space Station) that’s made up of 92% fuel to pull it off.
But White has now shown that they can reduce the amount of energy required from the size of Jupiter down to a size smaller than the mass of the Voyager 1 spacecraft, which is 500 kilograms (1,102 lbs.), by “first optimizing the warp bubble thickness, and further by oscillating the bubble intensity to reduce the stiffness of space time.”
It’s all just as fascinating as it is confusing. And many will say it’s all just talk and that warp drives are just as impossible now as they were when we first saw them used on Star Trek. But if we always just assumed the impossible to be impossible, we’d be far less evolved than we are…or perhaps even extinct.
Now we just need to figure out how to hit ludicrous speed.
Where would you want to go if we figured out how to create a warp drive?