NASA Actually Working on Faster-than-Light Warp Drive

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Harold White / NASA

You know that scene in the film Contact where the “Machine” is spooling up, its three spinning rings kicking out crazy light and an electromagnetic field powerful enough to pitch nearby Navy battleships sideways, as Ellie (Jodie Foster) waits, terrified, in her tiny spherical craft above the space-time bedlam, to plummet into the vortex?

Yeah, that’s not exactly how NASA’s envisioning faster-than-light space travel, but…wait, NASA’s working on faster-than-light travel? Isn’t that impossible?

(MORE: Ultrafast Chips that Run on Light: Nanoswitch Breakthrough Brings Us Closer)

Of course it is. Nothing can travel faster than light, right? To do so would violate the special theory of relativity, which stipulates that you’d need an infinite amount of energy to accelerate a particle with mass to light speed. We’ve all heard this pretty much since we were kids. Has someone finally proven special relativity wrong?

Not at all, but with respect to travel between the stars, someone did come up with a radical-sounding hypothetical workaround 18 years ago.

In a paper titled “The Warp Drive: Hyper-fast travel within general relativity” published in science journal Classical and Quantum Gravity in May 1994, physicist Miguel Alcubierre suggested a mechanism for getting an object from one point to another at faster-than-light speeds without running afoul of Einsteinian relativity.

Alcubierre’s idea: bending space-time in front of and behind a vessel rather than attempting to propel the vessel itself at light-speeds.

According to Alcubierre, in the paper abstract …

… [it] is shown how, within the framework of general relativity and without the introduction of wormholes, it is possible to modify a spacetime in a way that allows a spaceship to travel with an arbitrarily large speed. By a purely local expansion of spacetime behind the spaceship and an opposite contraction in front of it, motion faster than the speed of light as seen by observers outside the disturbed region is possible. The resulting distortion is reminiscent of the ‘warp drive’ of science fiction.

Harold White

By placing a spheroid object between two regions of space-time — one expanding, the other contracting — Alcubierre theorized you could create a “warp bubble” that moves space-time around the object, effectively re-positioning it. In essence, you’d have the end result of faster-than-light travel without the object itself having to move (with respect to its local frame of reference) at light-speed or faster.

The only catch: Alcubierre says that, “just as happens with wormholes,” you’d need “exotic matter” (matter with “strange properties”) to distort space-time. And the amount of energy necessary to power that would be on par with — wait for it — the mass-energy of the planet Jupiter.

So we’re back to “fuhgeddaboudit,” right?

Maybe not. According to NASA physicist Harold White, the energy problem may actually be surmountable by simply tweaking the warp drive’s geometry.

White, who just shared his latest ideas at the 100 Year Starship 2012 Public Symposium, says that if you adjust the shape of the ring surrounding the object, from something that looks like a flat halo into something thicker and curvier, you could power Alcubierre’s warp drive with a mass roughly the size of NASA’s Voyager 1 probe.

In other words: reduction in energy requirements from a planet with a mass equivalent to over 300 Earths, down to an object that weighs just under 1,600 pounds.

What’s more, if you oscillate the space warp, White claims you could reduce the energy load even further.

“The findings I presented today change [Alcubierre’s warp drive] from impractical to plausible and worth further investigation,” White told SPACE.com. “The additional energy reduction realized by oscillating the bubble intensity is an interesting conjecture that we will enjoy looking at in the lab.”

That’s right, an actual lab experiment, whereby White says he plans to simulate the tweaked Alcubierre drive in miniature, using lasers “to perturb space-time by one part in 10 million.”

And if it works? Don’t expect to go Alpha Centauri-hopping any time soon, but the idea well down the road, according to a presentation delivered by White on the subject last year, would involve a spacecraft leaving Earth, traveling a given distance using conventional propulsion, stopping (relative to the Earth), enabling its “warp field,” then traveling to a point near its interstellar destination, where it would then disable the field and continue on its way using conventional propulsion methods once more.

Star Trek meets Contact, in other words.

Instead of taking “decades or centuries,” White says this would allow us to visit a spot like Alpha Centauri — a little over four light years from us — in as little as “weeks or months.”

MORE: Penny for Your Rockets: Microthrusters Powered by Ion Beams Could Propel Satellites Through Space

239 comments
GrahamKloek
GrahamKloek

How exactly are they estimating the energy required to create the spacetime bubble? Do they actually have some idea how to accomplish the controlled distortion of spacetime? Or are they still stuck on the "you’d need “exotic matter” (matter with “strange properties”) to distort space-time" part?

SpaceJam2311
SpaceJam2311

I would like to know, if space-time is being stretched and contracted around the ship, how does it in theory affect the age of the ship's occupants relative to those back on earth? Would that week long journey to Alpha Centauri that should normally take decades result in the ship's occupants aging only weeks while those back on earth experienced decades of time pass? Or since the space-time inside the warp is not affected, only the space-time directly around the ship, would the occupants of the ship and the people on earth both only experience weeks of time passing? Not sure if anyone can answer this since it is only a theory as of now, but I would like to hear what Harold White thinks on the subject. 

dmousse1972
dmousse1972

What would happen if a comet or asteroid was in the path of space time that was being warped? 

gthooft
gthooft

Faster than light by using curved space-time? Only crackpots believe in that. Not only would one need matter of a kind that goes not exist, you'd also need a lot of it: 10000 solar masses at the least, otherwise tidal forces will kill you. Where do you get 10000 solar masses worth of non-existing matter from? NASA?

arnoldweston
arnoldweston

Scaling Space-Time experimentation nation-wide allows for orders of magnitude greater creativity in the field of space-time manipulation.  Consider that physics students are graduating every semester from universities everywhere; in most cities.  Do not discount the self-taught physicist doing garage lab experimentation.

Space-Time Manipulation Clubs held their first public meeting

Search ua-kits. c0m

The current generation is being labeled Generation Z.  The next generation could become inspired to be Generation ST.

The act of taking the journey in science promotes both critical thinking and analyzing for sustainability.  These are fundamental traits of Common Sense.

Imagine a nation whose youth has a strong grasp of Common Sense and the broad impact on national economic development.

unlisted6262
unlisted6262

I am not that smart of guy but was just bored in a briefing today pondering on how to control gravity.

So, a simple test that may not work but who knows.. 

first you have fan with no blades set at mid speed but is blowing the air.  Then  have another 12in away at a high rate of speed blowing in the same direction or opposite. Then you have then solid ball that is hook up to a vice that is rotating at 45 to 90 degrees at the end of those two fans or in the middle. Inside that ball you have another ball rotating horizontal. Have a laser aimed near it at about a few mils off the ball. A senser above the ball to track to see if an distortion could happen and adjust speed.  

Next test the 2 bowl method. One bowl on top thick made of rings multiple rings that are spin at high rate of speed in different directions and on on top doing the same thing and having a small ball in the middle on a platform and senser. it may not do much but that is to test. o well just bored most likely will not work

DanielFurtado
DanielFurtado

How can they contract and expand the spacetime? It's possible with our actual tecnology or they will try to create one?

spectremudduck
spectremudduck

    Senator,    I should mention something at this time. I know it will come as a shock to you but, it must be said. Light is actually slowing down. At the beginning of the universe, the speed of light AND the speed of GRAVITY were the same. Since then, light has been slowing down while gravity still moves at it's original speed. That speed, THE SPEED OF GRAVITY, is 20 MILLION times faster than the speed of light. So, if you wanted to get to Alpha Centauri in minutes, you need a GRAVITY DRIVE system. I thought you should know. --- Spec.

spectremudduck
spectremudduck

   Senator,  why would we use adhesives when we can literally GROW our spacecraft by means of 3D PRINTING which would make it unbelievably strong.  Then, you can use inertial dampeners which also exist right now if you really must have them. It is very plain to see that you haven't read up on this topic especially since according  to Miguel Alcoubiere's work, THERE IS A BUBBLE GENERATED AROUND YOUR STAR SHIP. WHAT IS INSIDE THE BUBBLE IS MOTIONLESS THEREFORE INERTIA INSIDE THE BUBBLE DOESN'T ENTER INTO THE EQUATION. This only shows that you haven't got a clue when it comes to SPACE ISSUES. You really ought to hire someone to look into these things for you. They could then give you an in depth briefing. --- Spec.


RobGoins
RobGoins

Unfortunately, it is a severe improbability being that we would have to find elements and adhesives that could stand that rate of travel. As well as the fact that the human body would have to essentially dissolve not brake apart literally turn into an vapor to sustain any chance of that speed. 

gomnolto
gomnolto

I just hope in happens in my lifetime.

ScottRyan
ScottRyan

yea my idea.

Facebook page     

External Magnetic Field-Propulsion Systems (ExMF-PS)

    comment / post of photo on   March 15, 2012 at 9:07pm 

go 2 see all down to that date. its posted all over nasa/facebook space pages


I have posted this on many blogs including all of NASA'S. Have said it would do something to space wrap, and some how make us go C or faster. 1 more idea taken by NASA.


I did post a different 1 that was 100% the same, but was just out in front, as i was thinking the force would kill the people in the ship. so it would start out in front then come back in once a bubble is formed i guess.

Yes i did say i have know idea what shape it has to be, but doing a force like this around the ship would let us go faster then C.

100% seen my idea.

HunterLeavey
HunterLeavey

Won't be long before the warp is breached. Prepare for Chaos!

azhure
azhure

so love this scitech, sci fi is only good for science and fiction since this isnt a fictional theory, we can call it scitech,hehe i miss downloading science and technology magazines at http://sharepirate.com

zen4zoey
zen4zoey

@HellInSpace I love it whenever #SciFi propels technological advancement. :)

jumpjunkiejw
jumpjunkiejw

@CosmicEvolution Why doesn't NASA just use a TR-3B... Or is that off limits!!

BlackeningAll
BlackeningAll

@Bob_Reinard This might actually be better (i.e. more devastating) than the LHC creating a Black Hole...

ConnorReeves
ConnorReeves

Is starfleet taking preliminary applications?

jessesipprell
jessesipprell

The article doesn't mention the important violation of Special Relativity, only the light speed limit.

If you can send information of any type FTL you can create a time machine and violate causality.  This is quite problematic and without adding some "magical" component to SR (like a universal inertial reference frame) would seem to be a show stopper.

rossoh
rossoh

@OneiricCanid I remember reading this now. I've managed to get a PDF of the paper. *devours*

MmTonyDiBo
MmTonyDiBo

Well, a nuclear explosion started as a theory.

Shady1228
Shady1228

It requires negative energy. Something that has not yet been created in a lab, but that Quantum Mechanics suggests exists.

RyanMann
RyanMann

@dmousse1972


Even though a collision is highly improbable, they should still account for the possibilities of one.

The best solution I can think of is to use lead drones.  Have the craft contain a fleet (say 12) of drones.  Each drone would be equipped with a warp drive that is in sync with the crafts warp drive.  Launch 1 drone on the crafts warp trajectory with a lead of a fixed amount of time.  Then launch the craft.

Program them in such a way that the drone (physically) is say 1 million miles ahead of the craft.  The drone would be sending a keep alive signal back to the Craft.  If the craft stops receiving the keep alive signal (from a million miles away) assume the drone hit something.  Immediately shut down the warp allowing a cushion of 1 million miles for a trajectory change.

A trajectory change could be done with an AI (computer) as to not waste a drone, Do a small detour warp, say at a 35 degree angle to go around the object, then another to finish going around it, then another to get back on course and launch a new drone.


Stentor
Stentor

@dmousse1972 You're thinking two-dimensionally, space is very three-dimensional , so that would be an extremely rare & unlikely occurrence. As an example, go outside with a friend & have each of you throw a relatively small object in the air so that they collide. I would be willing to wager you are either completely unable, or very rarely able, to make this happen if you are standing at a sufficient distance from one another.

Since the warp bubble is a field, I would imagine that there would be precautions taken for that & some type of deflection strategy would be employed. Barring the possibility that it would be a large object, collision-avoidance measures would have to be put into place beforehand to preclude the possibility of just such an event. These are things that the engineers would most likely have thought of, & mitigated or eliminated. NASA is a very competent agency, I know, I used to work up at the JPL in Pasadena, & I have every confidence in their abilities to plan ahead for these types of situations & many others.

Stentor
Stentor

@spectremudduck Don't know if you're referring to me or someone else, but it's Stentor, not Senator, read more carefully next time since you seem intent on taking me to task. First off, if you were going to 3D print a spacecraft, how big would the printer elements have to be? Extremely large is the answer, probably much larger than anything that's ever been produced in the past. Secondly, when the level of complexity rises, so do problems, it's just inherent to the physical processes. Read up on the process screw-ups that were encountered just making the Hubble Telescope Main Mirror for example, it very nearly didn't happen. Printing a spacecraft hull would be an unbelievably complex undertaking, since the material has to be heated to flow properly, then be extruded through the nozzles, after that it has to cool properly & then finally cure, there are a myriad of thermodynamics issues that would be greatly exacerbated by the sheer size of it.

The Albucierre Drive is based on the same thing that would probably drive this engine in the article above, namely an exotic form of matter. But in Miguel's case, you'd need something with negative mass, which is perfectly in line mathematically with Einstein's Field Equations for General Relativity, but may not even be physically meaningful or possible to build, unless he exploits the Casimir Effect. Additionally he neglects any inclusion of quantum mechanics into his equations, so an incorporation of quantum gravity into the calculations would be necessary if one is ever completed. The bubble itself may be motionless, but there are other problems such as control which are a bigger problem than any sort of inertia.

This pie-in-the-sky conjecture you're positing shows me clearly that you have at best a rudimentary understanding of physics, so I wouldn't be throwing around accusations if I were you about someone not being aware of issues of frame of reference or inertial frames because you're only going to embarrass yourself. My academic credentials prove my background, UC Berkeley Physics.

Stentor
Stentor

@RobGoins I think the level of ignorance in your comment is stunning in it's level of complete lack of knowledge about space travel. Space by its very nature has very little in the way of impingement upon surfaces, so adhesives & elements are of little consequence in the vacuum of interstellar distances. Just what are you basing your assertion that the body would have to "break" not "brake" apart to sustain that kind of speed? Those same sort of comments used to be said about breaking the speed of sound barrier, & was proven to be completely unfounded when the barrier was finally broken. I think you should be just a little more careful in your statements so you don't come off sounding like a complete ignoramus, which you have in that comment above.

Stentor
Stentor

@gomnolto I think a lot of us are hoping for the exact same thing. The other thing to consider is that our lifetimes may be considerably longer than those of our ancestors, a very good reason to stay in good health long enough to hit the singularity, then star travel.

ScottRyan
ScottRyan

New it would do something. new it was the way without being a pro.

DanielSavio
DanielSavio

@azhure I guess it escaped you that science fiction is where this idea originally came from?

C57D
C57D

@jumpjunkiejw @cosmicevolution I don't think the TR-3B has FTL speed. But, if it docked in orbit with a NASA warp drive ring...

Bob_Reinard
Bob_Reinard

@BlackeningAll I was suddenly reminded of the movie "Event Horizon"

A_Ware
A_Ware

@jessesipprell Wouldn't the information be traveling via the same warp as the ship, both never exceeding the speed of light?

OneiricCanid
OneiricCanid

@rossoh I can't understand the maths behind it, unfortunately, but NASA seem up think it checks out so I'm pretty confident xD

kallepa
kallepa

@petefrasermusic They will probably eat your head though. Worth it!

Trevael
Trevael

@Stentor @RobGoinsI am sorry to say that you have both missed the point of "warp" drive, as acceleration and the vacuum of space have nothing to do with the health of the crew. This article here only lightly touches on what Dr. White is proposing, but if you run a search on the terms "Harold White NASA Warp Drive" you will find much more detailed explanations. Within those explanations of Dr. White's theory it is stated that the spacecraft itself is stationary relative to the spacetime bubble it creates; in other words, it is the spacetime warp bubble that is moving and not the craft. The occupants of said craft will feel no forces of acceleration acting upon them. So, let's keep this topic clean and on track. Dr. White's research could prove to be of monumental importance to humankind.

jumpjunkiejw
jumpjunkiejw

@C57D @cosmicevolution Before they attempt an FTL Drive they need to figure out how to create Forcefields for interstellar shielding!!

rossoh
rossoh

@OneiricCanid I hope it is that situation, where NASA have audited his work, and not NASA just letting a scientist do what he wants.

Stentor
Stentor

@Trevael I didn't miss anything, I read the article, I have a background in Physics from UC Berkeley, & I understand what they're doing, or trying to do. I used to work up at the Jet Propulsion Labs in Pasadena, so I have quite a few colleagues still working for NASA at JPL & Ames up north in the South Bay area of San Francisco. It's a theory that's been around for a long time, shrink the space in front, & expand the space in back to enable tachyonic speeds inside a warped bubble of space. If you think this topic's clean, go look at some of the other comments where people have said ignorant things & they were taken to task by myself or other people. This discussion's been ongoing for a couple years now, you're just getting here so you're late to the party. 

kallepa
kallepa

@petefrasermusic Did I say I'm not one of those people? I'll already be sitting by the leaders side by the time you get there. >:-€

petefrasermusic
petefrasermusic

@kallepa Of course. I'll make sure they only do your feet.

kallepa
kallepa

@petefrasermusic Oh, you'll be one of those people that joins the bad aliens and helps them eat the heads of other humans. Nice!