NASA's Warp Drive Changes Everything... Including Time And Space
Over the years NASA have conducted a huge number of highly ambitious projects with the goal of the perfection of space travel but their latest project may be the most extraordinary yet.
In a seismically isolated room in the Johnson Space Center, researchers from the space agency are working with an electric field that they are trying to manipulate in such a way that it could literally bend the fabric of space and time. The researchers believe that if they are successful then they could theoretically begin work on interstellar space travel that would allow craft to fly faster than the speed of light. But is this really possible?
If the idea sounds as though it is derived from science fiction fantasy it is because this is precisely where the inspiration came from. In the early 1990s, a theoretical physicist named Miguel Alcubierre had his imagination captured by the notion of ‘warp drive’ in the popular science fiction series Star Trek and began to wonder how this fictional mode of travel could actually function in reality.
Alcubierre immediately identified a problem with the concept of warp speed – the ‘cosmic speed limit’ which Einstein’s special theory of relativity posited was absolutely impossible to breach. However, he realized that while the universe might be held to the limit of the speed of light, the fabric of space and time itself is not.
NASA's Warp Speed Starship Prototype: IXS Enterprise
This means that if the space time field could be manipulated to contract in front of a spacecraft and expand to its rear, then the ship could move at a speed that exceeded the speed of light. “While it sounds very sci-fi, the warp drive is theoretically possible, by making space and time bend in a particular way, ” explained Geraint Lewis a Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Sydney “With this bending, a small bubble of unbent space-time can be propelled across the Universe at any speed you want.”
When Alcubierre first published his theory of the warp drive in 1994, it was nothing more than a theoretical exercise and one which was very likely ever to be utilized in the real world. When he first calculated how much energy would be required to propel a spacecraft forward faster than the speed of light he argued that it would require the equivalent amount of energy produced by the Sun in 10 billion years. Naturally, this amount of energy expenditure would be completely unfeasible in the real world. However, scientists were intrigued by his idea and began to evolve his original thesis. Now researchers from NASA believe that his manipulation tactic could be carried out using the equivalent of the amount of energy the Sun expands in less than one-millionth of a second, which is much more feasible.
The researchers at NASA have been experimenting with this idea by generating an incredibly powerful electrical field and then firing laser beams through it. If there were a compression of the fabric of space and time then the distance that the laser beam would have to travel would be correspondingly shortened. “If it works, [it will be] the first baby steps in the direction of a warp drive, ” explains Professor Lewis.
The preliminary results of the first rounds of experimentation in 2013 were inconclusive. Now, the team working on the project are engaged in increasing the sensitivity of the instruments used to measure the distance being traveled by the laser beam in the powerful electric field. If they are successful, they will prove that it is possible to contract the fabric of space and time in front of the spacecraft. However, this is only half of what is required to make Alcubierre’s theory a reality. Following the contraction, the scientists must also work out how to expand the space-time fabric behind the craft. It is believed that the utilization of dark energy would be required to pull this off and at this time, theoretical physicists are not even sure if dark energy actually exists or whether it is just a hypothetical.
However, Professor Lewis is still optimistic about the future of the project despite this potential stumbling block, “Some think that malleable negative energy might be impossible, putting the proverbial spanner in the warp-drive works, ” he said, “But theoretical physics has not ruled this out.”