Whether or not you know anything about “Star Trek,” you’ve probably heard of the warp drive, that fictional technology that can fling a starship light-years away in mere minutes, opening up the universe to our exploration. If you’re a Star Wars fan, you’ve got the hyperdrive. It sounds like strict science fiction, and it is, but what if I told you that such technology might not be so far from real science’s grasp?
The 1960s were a good time for space exploration. With the specter of Communist Russia looming over the American people, the prospect of conquering the Final Frontier became far more interesting to politicians like Kennedy, and the Space Race was launched. Within a decade of John F. Kennedy’s bold announcement “we choose to go to the moon,” we went from not even knowing how to put a man in orbit to landing two of them on the moon, right on schedule. With that kind of success rate, it was easy for science fiction writers to envision us conquering far-off planets within a century. Well, as we now know, that kind of thing dried up a while ago; we don’t even have a manned space program at present. But hope remains; NASA has just begun experiments to see if it is possible to create a warp drive.
Warp drive was a term essentially made up by Gene Roddenberry for an episode of “Star Trek” as an explanation for how the Enterprise was able to travel faster than light. It was a fancy word, but it didn’t really mean anything. Until, that is, a man named Miguel Alcubierre took a look at the series and decided to make it mean something. Whereas most die-hard Trekkies devote their time to figuring out where the Captain’s lounge is on the Enterprise’s schematics, Alcubierre was an actual physicist who figured out how a warp drive might actually be possible. Now, a new generation of thinkers at NASA have taken a look at his idea and decided to give it a try.
Alcubierre’s warp drive makes use of the fact that space is a fabric which can be physically affected by objects within it. The problem with faster-than-light travel is that Einstein’s general relativity principles forbid it. An object can approach, but not meet or exceed, the speed of light. No exceptions. Fortunately, a warp drive allows us to get around those principles without actually breaking them. A warp engine derives its name from its function of literally warping space. It contracts the space in front of the vessel and expands the space behind it, creating a wave of space, or “warp bubble,” which carries the spacecraft along at speeds exceeding that of light. Since the spacecraft remains in the space contained within the warp bubble, it technically isn’t moving at all, allowing the rules of general relativity to remain unbroken. But there’s still a problem: It would require a gigantic amount of energy.
NASA physicist Harold White thinks that problem just might be solvable. By adjusting the shape of the warp bubble and oscillating it, he says, you can power a warp drive with an amount of fuel only the size of the Voyager I probe. For comparison, the amount of fuel you’d need without making those modifications would equal about 300 Earths.
White intends to test his hypothesis in the lab by using lasers to warp the fabric of space-time at a tiny scale, creating, in effect, a miniature warp bubble. If it works, we could eventually see the creation of a warp bubble large enough to surround a spacecraft. There are still problems to overcome (nobody is sure it’s absolutely possible yet, and on top of that nobody knows how they would turn the warp bubble off once you’ve arrived at your destination) but if it were to happen, we could travel the four light-years to Alpha Centauri in mere weeks.
“Star Trek” has influenced plenty of real-world inventors. That cell phone you’re carrying around right now? You have a “Star Trek” nerd to thank for that: The technology that makes it possible was directly inspired by the communicators from the show. Another company is now thinking about a handheld device that can scan your body for various ailments and diagnose them, much like Dr. McCoy’s medical tricorder. But if the warp drive turns out to be achievable, it has implications that will outlive all of us and revolutionize the future of the human race. No wonder “Futurama” suggested that “Star Trek” would be our religion in the future.
A version of this article appeared on page 9 of November 13th, 2012’s print edition of the Nexus.