For the science fans out there...
NASA doesn’t just think warp drive is possible. They’re working on it
In 1994, a Mexican theoretical physicist named Miguel Alcubierre presented a paper. He had found, he claimed, the mathematical formula necessary to send a spaceship travelling faster than light. It is commonly accepted that nothing can travel faster than light in our universe. Special relativity does not permit it — the faster an object travels, the more energy is required to accelerate it. There is simply no way to exceed light speed.
But Alcubierre wasn’t interested in finding a way to send an object travelling faster than light through space. Instead, he proposed that space itself could move, if it were “warped” by an energy field. His formula envisioned a ship inside a bubble. Inside that bubble, everything is normal. But that bubble is moving through space, by compressing the universe in front of it and expanding the universe behind it. Alcubierre’s formula was reviewed and held to be mathematically sound, but practically unusable.
That may have changed.
In 1994, the problems with Alcubierre’s formula were significant. No one knew how to build an engine that would warp space that way. Even if some way could be found, the amount of “exotic matter” required to power that engine was more than the entire mass of the universe. Several times more, in fact. In the years since Alcubierre wrote his formula, others have worked with it, trying to find a way to make it more practical. Some of the first improvements reduced the power that would be required to send a ship travelling 10 times faster than light to “only” three times the entire mass of the sun. Further refinements brought that down to “only” the mass of Jupiter. Progress, sure, but still not particularly helpful.
Enter NASA scientist Harold “Sonny” White, who recently announced, quietly, that not only does he think he’s solved the mathematical problems, but they’re already working on creating a test “warp bubble.”
The work is pretty astonishing, and highly technical. The math is sadly beyond the comprehension of this mere scribbler. But the practical meaning is hard to ignore. White and his team continued to work with Alcubierre’s formula, and discovered that by making two small changes, it would be possible to accelerate a spaceship to 10 times the speed of light using only about a metric ton of exotic matter. A ton of exotic matter is still a lot, since we don’t know how to build it, or where to find any. But at the very least, it brings Alcubierre’s formula into the realm of the possible. If only someone can find a way to make it happen.
And White is doing exactly that. He and his team have built a small device at NASA’s headquarters in Houston. With it, they intend to use laser beams to try and create tiny — indescribably tiny — warp bubbles. If successful — and White seems optimistic — it would prove that the theory of faster-than-light travel is sound, and requires only the engineering breakthroughs required to enable it.
Easier said than done, of course. Man would first need to discover how to build exotic matter, or harness it from a natural source in some way. It would also need to find a way to construct a spaceship that could take advantage of the opportunities provided by the refined Alcubierre formula. There is no way to estimate what would be involved in doing that. It is an area of science that is almost totally new to us.
But if it can be shown, in a lab, that there is a reason to try — that it could work — then the practical studies into how to make it work will follow. It might take 100 years, or a thousand, but it would reduce something that was thought to be impossible into something we merely haven’t figured out how to do yet.
It’s unlikely that I, or anyone reading this, will ever travel aboard an Earth ship to a distant star, moving at faster than the speed of light. But for those who look up at the night sky and feel the deep frustration born of knowing we’ll never get there, there may be cause for hope. We might not. But those who follow may just have a chance.