Warp drive – or travel at speeds faster than light – has long been one of the cornerstones of science fiction, however top NASA scientist Dr. Harold “Sonny” White recently stated that “a Star Trek experience within our lifetime is not such a remote possibility.” The Advanced Propulsion Theme Lead for the NASA Engineering Directorate wrote in a blog post on Icarus Interstellar: “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 time—a “Chicago pile” moment, as it were.”
Warp speed is a complex issue because traveling faster than light (which reportedly can’t be done) also means traveling faster than time. In short, astronauts traveling to distant planets may return to Earth and find their families have aged dramatically since they’ve been gone. However Dr. White proposes using a space warp which uses the same space and the same standard of time.
“If we can theoretically manipulate it for our purposes, interstellar flight could be an option on a future technology roadmap”, Dr White wrote. “The first question you might start with is, “How hard is interstellar flight?” The Voyager 1 spacecraft is sometimes lifted up as our first interstellar spacecraft. It’s not a very big fella—it’s just a little bit under a metric ton, and it’s been going on now for about 33 years, headed straight out away from our solar system about as fast as it can go.”
“If you stuck a measuring stick out to it, it’s about 119 astronomical units (AU) away from the sun. (An AU is the distance from the sun to the Earth.) It’s one of the highest energy objects that’s been launched to date, and nothing that we’ve launched will pass it. But if you wanted to predict how long it would take to get to the nearest star system, like Alpha Centauri, it would take around 75,000 years to get there. In terms of our galactic neighborhood, Alpha Centauri is right around the corner at 4.3 light years (271,931 AUs), so 75,000 years would not be ideal—especially for a human crew. But if you threw a bunch of power and propulsion behind it, then what?”
That has long been the question, but no one is sure how to do it. Sure Capt. Kirk and co. simply say ‘engage’ and warp from one star system to another, but unfortunately we don’t have dilithium crystals to power our star drives. However Dr. Snow believes a loophole can be found in mathematics.
“Those equations are tested using an instrument called the White-Juday Warp Field Interferometer. 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 fast—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 somebody’s clock aboard the spacecraft would have 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 doesn’t go slamming against the bulkhead, which would be a very short and sad trip.”
The warp drive of Star Trek is a possibility! Now if only NASA could get the funding for more testing…
Images: Paramount Pictures and NASA