NASA scientists now think that the famous warp drive concept is a realistic possibility, and that in the far future humans could regularly travel faster than the speed of light.A warp drive would work by “warping” spacetime around any spaceship, which physicist Miguel Alcubierre showed was theoretically possible in 1994, albeit well beyond the current technical capabilities of humanity. However, any such Alcubierre drive was assumed to require more energy — equivalent to the mass-energy of the whole planet of Jupiter – than could ever possibly be supplied, rendering it impossible to build.
But now scientists believe that those requirements might not be so vast, making warp travel a tangible possibility. Harold White, from NASA’s Johnson Space Centre, revealed the news on Sept. 14 at the 100 Year Starship Symposium, a gathering to discuss the possibilities and challenges of interstellar space travel. Space.com reports that White and his team have calculated that the amount of energy required to create an Alcubierre drive may be smaller than first thought.
The drive works by using a wave to compress the spacetime in front of the spaceship while expanding the spacetime behind it. The ship itself would float in a “bubble” of normal spacetime that would float along the wave of compressed spacetime, like the way a surfer rides a break. The ship, inside the warp bubble, would be going faster than the speed of light relative to objects outside the bubble.
By changing the shape of the warp bubble from a sphere to more of a rounded doughnut, White claims that the energy requirements will be far, far smaller for any faster-than-light ship — merely equivalent to the mass-energy of an object the size of Voyager 1.
Alas, before you start plotting which stars you want to visit first, don’t expect one appearing within our lifetimes. Any warp drive big enough to transport a ship would still require vast amounts of energy by today’s standards, which would probably necessitate exploiting dark energy — but we don’t know yet what, exactly, dark energy is, nor whether it’s something a spaceship could easily harness. There’s also the issue that we have no idea how to create or maintain a warp bubble, let alone what it would be made out of. It could even potentially, if not constructed properly, create unintended black holes.
In the universe of Star Trek, the warp drive was invented in 2063. That prediction may well prove somewhat optimistic.