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June 7, 2013

Is Warp Drive Possible?

Alcubierre warp drive

 Space Exploration
NASA researchers have actually been testing actual faster-than-light warp drive practicality. By re-imagining of an Alcubierre Drive, it may eventually result in an engine that can transport a spacecraft to the nearest star in a matter of weeks — and all without violating Einstein's law of relativity.

Star Trek's warp drive may not be restricted to the world of science fiction after all.

Due a loophole in Einstein's general theory of relativity, a spaceship could travel galactic distances much faster than the speed of light.
To do this in practice the spaceship would not move; the space around it would warp.

Scientists at NASA are right now working on the first practical field test toward proving the possibility of warp drives and faster-than-light travel.

A few months ago, physicist Harold White shocked the aeronautics world when he announced that he and his team at NASA had begun work on the development of a warp drive. His proposed design, an ingenious re-imagining of an Alcubierre Drive, may eventually result in an engine that can transport a spacecraft to the nearest star in a matter of weeks — and all without violating Einstein's law of relativity.

Miguel Alcubierre
Miguel Alcubierre
According to Einstein's theory, an object with mass cannot go as fast or faster than the speed of light. The original Star Trek series ignored this "universal speed limit" in favor of a ship that could zip around the galaxy in a matter of days instead of decades. The writers tried to explain the ship's faster-than-light capabilities by powering the warp engine with a "matter-antimatter" engine.

Antimatter was a popular field of study in the 1960s, when creator Gene Roddenberry was first writing the series. When matter and antimatter collide, their mass is converted to kinetic energy in keeping with Einstein's mass-energy equivalence formula, E=mc2.

In other words, matter-antimatter collision is a potentially powerful source of energy and fuel, but even that wouldn't be enough to propel a starship to faster-than-light speeds.

So, thanks to "Star Trek" that the word "warp" is now practically synonymous with faster-than-light travel. Alcubierre himself developed the model for warp drive after watching an episode of Star Trek.

Alcubierre used his knowledge of the Red Shift phenomenon to exploit a loophole in the "universal speed limit." In his theory, the ship never goes faster than the speed of light — instead, space in front of the ship is contracted while space behind it is expanded, allowing the ship to travel distances in less time than light would take. The ship itself remains in what Alcubierre termed a "warp bubble" and, within that bubble, never goes faster than the speed of light.

Since Alcubierre published his paper "The Warp Drive: Hyper-fast travel within general relativity" in 1994, many physicists and science fiction writers have played with his theory.

The Alcubierre warp drive is still theoretical for now. "The truth is that the best ideas sound crazy at first. And then there comes a time when we can't imagine a world without them." That's a statement from the 100 Year Starship organization, a think tank devoted to making Earth what "Star Trek" would call a "warp-capable civilization" within a century.

The first step toward a functional warp drive is to prove that a "warp bubble" is even possible, and that it can be artificially created.

That is what White and a team of researchers at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Texas are doing right now.

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According to Alcubierre's theory, one could create a warp bubble by applying negative energy, or energy created in a vacuum. This process relies on the Casimir effect, which states that a vacuum is not actually a void; instead, a vacuum is actually full of fluctuating electromagnetic waves. Distorting these waves creates negative energy, which possibly distorts space-time, creating a warp bubble.

To test if space-time distortion can occur by experiment, the researchers shine two highly targeted lasers: one through the site of the vacuum and one through regular space. White and his fellow researchers will then compare the two beams, and if the wavelength of the one going through the vacuum is lengthened, i.e. redshifted, in any way, they'll know that it passed through a warp bubble.

White and his team have been at work for a few months now, but they have yet to get a verifiable result. The problem is that the fields of negative energies are so minute, the laser so precise, that even the smallest seismic motion of the earth can throw off the results.

White, is now in the process of moving the test equipment to a building on the Johnson Space Center campus that was originally built for the Apollo space program. "The lab is seismically isolated, so the whole floor can be floated," White told TechNewsDaily. "But the system hadn't been [activated] for a while so part of the process was, we had the system inspected and tested."

White is now working on re-calibrating the laser for the new location. He wouldn't speculate on when his team could expect conclusive data, nor how long until fully actuated warp travel might be possible, but he remains convinced that it's only a matter of time.

Michio Kaku has dubbed Alcubierre's notion a "passport to the universe." Scientists speculate that such a drive could result in "speeds" that could take a spacecraft to Alpha Centauri in a mere two weeks — even though the system is 4.3 light-years away.  For now, this remains a theoretical idea, but the potential is truly  incredible.

SOURCES  IO9, Popular Science, NASA

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