A Faster-Than-Light Warp Drive-Powered Spaceship May Be Possible

Researchers could boldly go where no one has gone before.
Donovan Alexander

That's it. You have decided 2020 has been enough. You have created a spaceship and have made the choice to leave for the closest habitable planet. None of the traditional potentially habitable nearby neighbors like Mars, Venus, or Titan will make the cut. Rather than risk living through anymore 2020 catastrophes, your best bet is to fly out to one of our closest interstellar neighbors. In 2017, astronomers reported that our nearest neighbor, Proxima Centauri, has several potentially habitable exoplanets. It looks like this may be your next destination. However, how long will it take for you to get to your new home? For reference, consider that the Saturn V rocket that launched the Apollo 11 spacecraft into space traveled at just over 40,000 kilometers per hour

However, let's assume that your spaceship can reach the same top speed as the Parker Solar Probe, right under 700,000 kilometers per hour. How long will it take you to get to Proxima Centauri, which lies approximately 4.2 light-years from Earth? A few months? Years? Decades? Assuming that you can travel as fast as the Parker Solar Probe, it would take approximately 6,600 years to arrive at your destination. No amount of gameplay will keep you entertained for that long, given that you have found a way to survive. Say, if you were only able to travel at the speed of the Apollo 11 spacecraft, it would take you 113,000 years to get to Proxima Centauri

To understand warp drives, you need to grasp the speed of light

Perhaps we have a solution to your conundrum. A warp drive. Before we even jump into warp speed, you need to fully grasp our universe's massive size and the concept of light-years.

As the universe is unimaginably big, researchers tend to use light-years to describe the distance between objects. In short, a light-year is the distance light travels in one Earth year. Light is the fastest thing in our universe, traveling at a speed of approximately 186,000 miles or 300,000 km per second. One light-year is approximately 6 trillion miles or 9 trillion km. If you wanted to travel to something a little closer like the Sun it would take 8.3 minutes to reach your destination traveling at the speed of light. 

However, if you wanted to go to our closest big galaxy, Andromeda, it would take you 2.5 million light-years. Even if humans were able to create a ship that could travel at the speed of light, our potential destinations would still be limited. Much easier, but still annoying. As we said, the universe is unimaginably large.  However, could we create a ship that travels faster than light? Though this sounds like something out of your favorite science fiction show or movie, a warp drive may not be as unrealistic as once thought

In fact, it may be crucial to our survival. "I don't think the human race will survive the next thousand years, unless we spread into space. There are too many accidents that can befall life on a single planet. But I'm an optimist. We will reach out to the stars," said the late Stephen Hawking.


The Warp Drive in Science Fiction 

In the legendary Star Trek film and television show franchise, warp drive technology was described as a machine designed "to manipulate space, to violate the laws of motion. You make the tiniest mistake, you'll collapse the warp field, you'll crush this ship." 

Sounds cool, right?

Basically, a warp drive allows space explorers to travel faster than the speed of light. In Star Trek, it worked by generating "warp fields" to form a subspace bubble that enveloped the starship, distorting the local space-time continuum and moving the starship at velocities that could significantly exceed the speed of light. This fictional 24th-century device makes all interstellar exploration and commerce possible in Star Trek. However, what about in reality? 

Warp speed ahead: What is a warp drive? 

A Faster-Than-Light Warp Drive-Powered Spaceship May Be Possible
Source: NASA

As mentioned, in our fictional world, a warp drive would allow us to manipulate space-time itself, very literally taking advantage of a loophole in physics to move faster than light. The closest thing to a real warp drive is known as the Alcubierre Warp Drive, which is still only a theoretical construct. It is based on a highly speculative physics paper published in 1994 by Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre, who proposed a purportedly valid solution to how space-time and energy interact. 

Why would we do something like this? You can thank Einstein. Albert Einstein's special theory of relativity has driven our understanding of the universe for over a century. Scientists have been operating under the restrictions imposed by a relativistic universe. One of these proposed restrictions centers around the idea that the speed of light is an unbreakable universal speed limit.

This means things like faster-than-light space travel is impossible. Alcubierre's answer? He believes that bending space-time could be the solution. How would that work?

How would your warp drive work? 

A Faster-Than-Light Warp Drive-Powered Spaceship May Be Possible
Source: NASA

Let's go back to our space trip to Proxima Centauri example. In this case, rather than have a standard space ship, we have a new and improved ship with Alcubierre's warp drive technology installed. How would it work? Simply put, as your ship travels to Proxima Centauri, it would cause space ahead of it to contract while the space behind it would expand. Your ship would be moving in space-time within a bubble, or what is known as a "warp bubble" of flat space. 

The solution to Einstein’s field equations that would allow this warp-speed travel is called the "Alcubierre metric". Imagine you and your roommate picked up the sheet on your bed and straightened it, holding each corner so that it was suspended above the bed, completely flat and stable. If you were to drop a round crystal ball and let it sit on this sheet, it would create an indent, "bending" the fabric. This is going to be your spaceship within its warp- bubble, and the sheet is space-time. Our spaceship is not only making a dent in space; it is pulling part of space-time towards it (expanding) and pushing space-time behind it (contracting).

A Faster-Than-Light Warp Drive-Powered Spaceship May Be Possible

Two-dimensional visualization of an Alcubierre drive, showing the opposing regions of expanding and contracting spacetime that displace the central region, Source: Allen McC/Wikimedia Commons

As described by Matt Williams of Universe Today, "Since the ship is not moving within this bubble, but is being carried along as the region itself moves, conventional relativistic effects such as time dilation would not apply. Hence, the rules of space-time and the laws of relativity would not be violated in the conventional sense."

Our ship is not violating Einstein's equations thanks to the "Alcubierre metric". This phenomenon would give our unique spaceship special properties. We could reach our destination faster within our bubble than a beam of light traveling outside our warp bubble. Interestingly, the fabric of space-time is not limited by the speed of light as proposed by Einstein. 

There are some problems with the Warp Drive

A Faster-Than-Light Warp Drive-Powered Spaceship May Be Possible
A model of the warp drive spacecraft, Source: NASA/Harold White

 What type of spaceship would we need to create to do this? We would need to create a football-shaped spacecraft with a massive ring encircling it for our faster than light travel to be possible. Think of the enormous ship presented in Interstellar or even in 2001: Space Odyssey. The ring circling the ship would be made of "exotic matter" that would cause space-time to warp around it, creating the scenario described above. 

A Faster-Than-Light Warp Drive-Powered Spaceship May Be Possible
Source: NASA/Harold White

So why are we not funding this? To build a space-ship powerful enough to warp, space-time would need to be massive. The minimum amount of energy required would be about equal to the mass-energy of the planet Jupiter

However, recently scientists have changed their tune. 

Harold "Sonny" White of NASA's Johnson Space Center says, "There is hope." At the 100 Year Starship Symposium, a meeting to discuss interstellar spaceflight, he talked about the possibility of creating an Alcubierre warp drive. Initially, it was believed the ring on our ship needed to be a perfect circle, further complicating its design. However, White's new calculations propose that the ring circling our ship should be more donut-shaped.

This could power a spacecraft with the mass-energy of the Voyager 1 probe. Even more recently, a report published by NASA has insinuated that the space agency has at least taken a serious look at warp drive technology.

There are multiple steps required to achieve interstellar travel, and it could take countless years before we become an interplanetary species. What’s more, there are multiple other steps we need to take to get there. Simply, creating a self-sustaining civilization on Mars is going to be a monumental task.

As Elon Musk once said, “There needs to be an intersection of the set of people who wish to go, and the set of people who can afford to go...and that intersection of sets has to be enough to establish a self-sustaining civilization."

However, warp drive technology could be an important first step. Until then we can put our hopes in the development of ion propulsion

Do you think we will have warp drive technology in the near future? Where would you travel? 

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