If you have read our recent article, or any like it, then you already know about the incredible discovery of Einstein’s predicted gravitational waves. And so, it is time for us to “nerd out” imagining what new technologies could arise from the discovery.
It is time for us to build a Warp Drive.
Yes, that same legendary Warp Drive you remember from Star Trek is actually based in some concrete scientific fact.
How it works:
- The space in front of the spaceship is condensed while simultaneously the space behind the ship is expanded. This takes an insane amount of energy.
- A bubble of normal, “flat” space forms between these regions of warped space.
- This bubble of space is pushed through space faster than the speed of light to its destination.
Sounds pretty simple…
(note: This article was originally inspired by gravitational waves, however; because of their limit to the speed of light and their inability to create a “Warp Bubble” to protect a ship, gravitational waves are not the answer to creating a warp drive. However, their existence does confirm that warping space is possible.)
The Warp Drive is built to exploit a loophole within Einstein’s laws of general relativity. In order for the laws of nature to work, no object can travel faster than the speed of light. This is referred to as the cosmic speed limit (the C in, E=MC^2). In fact, even gravitational waves themselves are limited to the cosmic speed limit.
However, there is no such cosmic speed limit for moving space itself and that is exactly what a Warp Drive does.
This moving patch of space is known to trekkies as a “warp bubble,” which is a region of “flat” space between the condensed space in front and the expanded space behind the ship.
(“Flat” meaning that there is no significant gravitational warping of space in the bubble which would cause a person to be harmed in a process called spaghettification.)
You could imagine the gravitational warping around the ship to be like a giant hurricane; this “warp bubble” is the eye of the storm. All around the bubble is completely inhospitable space that would tear you limb from limb, but within the eye of the storm a ship would be oblivious to any danger.
And due to the warping of space around the ship, that bubble is able to cheat the cosmic speed limit and travel faster than even light itself. Any object with mass cannot travel faster than light due to the laws of physics, but this bubble of space has no mass to slow it down and the ship is simply along for the ride.
As Scotty explains in this clip where he and a future Spock are trying to teleport a person onto a ship that is traveling at warp speed; it is really space that is doing the moving.
By doing this, some have calculated that it is possible to travel up to 10 times the speed of light!
To give an idea of how fast this is:
The closest star system to Earth is Alpha Centauri at 4.37 light years from earth. Conventional rockets would take over 100 years to make this journey; it would be an entirely new generation of passengers once the ship arrived. With a Warp Drive, this same trip could be done in 5 months or possibly even less. Just a hop across the atlantic to our forefathers.
The theoretical background for this device was first proposed by a theoretical physicist named, Miguel Alcubierre. Soon, Alcubierre’s Warp Drive became the standard for every trekkie to reference when arguing that it is possible. His paper describing the physics of the warp drive will be our guide to building one today.
So lets build this thing.
The design of the ship will be dictated by 3 things:
- The shape of the warp bubble.
- The control of the high density energy/mass in front of the ship.
- The control of a negative energy/mass behind the ship.
1 The Warp Bubble
Turns out the most important factor for determining the energy requirements of our ship is the shape of the warp bubble it will create.
In its beginnings, the warp bubble was designed to be an almond like shape. Due to the physics of this shape, literally all of the energy in the known universe was required to meet the calculations. A very depressing day for the Trekkies. However; with some fine tuning, the optimal shape of the bubble was discovered to be more like a doughnut; reducing the mass/energy required to only about the size of Jupiter.
(Mass/energy meaning all the energy that could be converted from the mass of Jupiter. Einstein taught us that mass and energy are really the same thing and can be converted via his equation: E=MC^2)
Even more hope was found when physicists realized that if you could rapidly oscillate the walls of this bubble, the energy required would theoretically drop even more to the order of kilograms.
Our warp bubble is now in reach.
So we will need to create a doughnut shaped warp bubble with oscillating gravitational walls. Sounds easy right…?
If you can believe it, NASA has already designed a ship wrapped within two giant rings to allow for this type of warp bubble geometry. Your tax dollars hard at work…but seriously.
This type of design allows for the ship to be protected inside the warp bubble while the rings expand and compress the surrounding space.
Next we will need to determine how we are going to generate the large energies needed create this warping effect.
2 Contracting the Space in Front
Creating enough energy to squeeze the space in front of the ship is no easy task but it is something we see in nature all the time. Any massive object in the universe will cause this type of space squeezing. In fact, black holes do this so well that even light cannot escape their grasp. So perhaps we can use this natural phenomenon to our advantage.
Dangling a massive black hole in front of the ship might be too difficult and definitely too dangerous but perhaps microscopic black holes are the answer.
While their existence is debated, most physicists believe that microscopic black holes are formed all the time during particle collisions. In fact, there was public concern that CERN would create too many of these black holes when they collided together particles at unprecedented speeds in their search for the Higgs boson.
What scientists soon found was that if microscopic black holes were formed, then they would quickly “evaporate” because of their small size.
Well this sounds like just what we need.
If we could generate enough of these black holes around the front ring of the space craft by colliding particles at high speeds we should have enough mass-energy to shrink the space in front of the ship. And even better, when we turn off the warp drive at our destination, the black holes simply evaporate away; preventing a cataclysmic disaster to any worlds we visit.
Of course the amount of Hawking radiation emitted by these black holes could cause our quiet warp bubble to heat up hotter than the Sun, so we will definitly need some sort of electromagnetic shielding to keep our passengers from disintegrating.
3 Expanding the Space Behind:
This will be our biggest obstacle yet and it comes right when we are feeling pretty great about ourselves. Sure there is a lot of energy needed for the doughnut shaped warp bubble and the micro black holes but all of that is founded in some solid science and known quantities.
In order to expand the space behind the ship, we will need something called negative mass/energy.
This negative mass/energy will have the opposite effect of regular matter as the surrounding space is stretched out instead of squeezed together. Theoretically, there is no problem in the equations to have negative mass/energy, but how can you have negative anything in a physical reality?
Interestingly enough, there has been hints of this negative energy produced in quantum experiments.
The Casimir effect gets its name from a scientist who created a space of negative energy between two metal plates through disturbing the formation of virtual particles. (Virtual particles = particles that consistently pop in and out of existence in “empty” space. By stopping these particles from forming, you can create a space of negative energy compared to normal space.)
However; generating this type of effect on the scale needed for a space ship is staggering. As in all of the energy is the galaxy staggering…again…
Assuming we could generate the ridiculous amount of energy, all we would need to do is align two metal plates around the back ring of the ship to create the negative energy field. Throw in some high tech automatic sliding doors and fancy neon lights and our star ship is complete.
Humanity can now travel 10 time the speed of light and explore the galaxy with ease. Colonies on other planets, trips to black holes, and 20 minute tours of the solar system are now all within reach. It will literally be 60 seconds to Mars…This would be our first step into a new frontier; a manifest destiny of the stars.