Warp Two, Mr. Sulu: How Warp Drive Might Be Possible

Every Trekkie knows that none of the adventures of the Enterprise would be possible without warp drive, a function of the futuristic starship that allows it to travel faster than the speed of light - an idea Einstein would have many things to say about if he were alive today, as this directly contradicts the theory of special relativity. One of the first things you learn in physics - or life in general - is that faster-than-light travel is not possible. Or is it?

1. Nature can do it

If you look way, way back in our universe’s history, you get to the Big Bang. Our universe has been expanding since then (roughly 13.7 billion years) and, as determined by various cosmology models, in the very early periods of the universe, there was explosive inflation. During those periods of time, points in space would have been moving away from each other very, very rapidly. The universe is still expanding today, so we know that space flexes naturally. The question is, can we do it?

2. Alcubierre’s hypothesis

In 1994, physicist Miguel Alcubierre theorized that faster-than-light speed was possible, in a way that did not contradict Einstein. It involves the contraction and expansion of space. Here’s how it works: by manipulating spacetime, it might be possible for, say, a spaceship to generate a “warp bubble” that would expand space on one side of the craft and contract it on the opposite side, creating a sort of wave that would push the ship forward. There’s still the question of how to manipulate spacetime that way, but that’s a technicality.

3. Energy

The closer to light speed a massive object is traveling, the more energy it takes to make it move. Imagine how much energy it would take to make a spaceship go even faster. Yeah. Technically, it wouldn’t quite be infinity, because the spaceship wouldn’t surpass the speed of light in a local region of space, but it would still be a lot. However, there may be ways to make it more efficient, options that many, including Dr. Harold White of NASA, are exploring.

4. Warping trajectories

Experiments that are currently underway explore the possibility of warping the trajectories taken by photons to allow them to travel greater distances without sacrificing speed by means of folding time and space around them. True, photons are a long cry from starships, but it’s one more step in the right direction.

5. Wormhole

This doesn’t quite fall under the idea of warp drive, but wormholes are another hypothetical way that a spacecraft might achieve faster-than-light speeds. The idea here is that the ship, or some exterior mechanism, would somehow create a tunnel through spacetime, entering the wormhole at a speed slower than light and reappearing at a location many light-years away. In his paper “Faster-Than-Light Space Warps, Status and The Next Steps,” astrophysicist Eric Davis described a wormhole entrance as “a sphere that contained the mirror image of a whole other universe or remote region within our universe, incredibly shrunken and distorted.” Whether or not it is technically viable remains to be seen.

6. Negative energy

Of course, a natural question is, how could we possibly manage to bend or warp (or whatever verb you prefer) spacetime? Some physicists believe (and some preliminary experiments seem to confirm) that the answer lies in negative energy. Negative energy has been successfully produced in a lab via what’s called the Casimir effect: distorting the electromagnetic fluctuations in vacuum. Theoretically, it might be possible to harness these distortions (and the negative energy they produce) at a single point and there have a wormhole.

It may be crazy and unachievable for now, but we have to keep in mind how swiftly the rate of technological innovation is increasing. Forty years ago, Star Trek had cell phones, Kirk flipping open a communicator and talking into it, and that was the future to look forward to. Now, we have phones that not only allow us to communicate with each other from wherever we are but also allow us to surf the internet, read books, take pictures and videos, play games, etc. The postulate that none may go faster than the speed of light, like some interstellar speed limit, may be a solid law for now - but hey, rules were made to be broken.

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