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Adjustments have radically reduced the theoretical amount of energy necessary to warp space-time

"There is hope."

Those were the words of Harold "Sonny" White at the 100 Year Starship Symposium, an event where science fiction fans and theoretical physicists alike met to trade suggestions and ideas about future starship designs.  Mr. White was talking about his novel warp drive that bears eerie similarities to the fictional drive of Star Trek fame.

I. From Fiction to Feasible

The idea for the real-life version was first hatched by Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre in 1994.  Alcubierre's spaceship was a two-part design consisting of a football-shaped spacecraft and an outer ring of exotic matter, responsible for warping space.  

Inside the ring was a bubble of normal, safe space-time encapsulating the ship, but outside it the ring contracted space-time ahead of the ship while elongating it behind the ship.  The resulting distortion of the fabric of our universe would allow the spaceship to travel at a mind-blowing 10 times the speed of light without violating the fundamental laws of space and time.

Warp spaceship
The warp spaceship is a two-part design. [Image Source: Harold White]

So what’s the problem?  The amount of energy needed to warp the space was calculated to be equivalent to the mass of the planet Jupiter, the most massive planet in our solar system.  Thus for almost a decade the idea was written off as an interesting theoretical observation, but more fit for fiction than fact.

Then along came Mr. White with an interesting idea -- what if you turned the relatively flat ring into a donut.  The results were astonishing -- used the new rounded ring design, the mass-energy needed was reduced by orders of magnitude to around that of the Voyager 1 probe NASA launched in 1977 -- a small spacecraft.

And by oscillating the intensity of the warps over time, the energy could be even further reduced.

Comments Mr. White in a report, "The findings I presented today change it from impractical to plausible and worth further investigation.  The additional energy reduction realized by oscillating the bubble intensity is an interesting conjecture that we will enjoy looking at in the lab.  If we're ever going to become a true spacefaring civilization, we're going to have to think outside the box a little bit, were going to have to be a little bit audacious."

II. Moving Towards the Stars

Following the new revelations, Mr. White's next order of business is to set up a tabletop experiment at the Johnson Space Center using a measurement instrument they invented, dubbed the White-Juday Warp Field Interferometer.  The laser instrument is designed to detect small warps in space.

Mr. White says of this "humble" experiment, "We're trying to see if we can generate a very tiny instance of this in a tabletop experiment, to try to perturb space-time by one part in 10 million."

Kepler Exoplanet
The warp drive could allow man to reach distant exoplanets. [Image Source: NASA/UCSD]

Richard Obousy, president of Icarus Interstellar, a non-profit group of scientists and engineers devoted to pursuing interstellar spaceflight, is thrilled by the progress, commenting, "Everything within space is restricted by the speed of light.  But the really cool thing is space-time, the fabric of space, is not limited by the speed of light."

At this point the warp engine is still in its very nascent stages of development.

And yet one cannot help but imagine the words of fictional Star Trek character Zefram Cochrane, Mr. White's fictional analogue:

On this site, a powerful engine will be built - an engine that will someday help us to travel a hundred times faster than we can today. Imagine it: thousands of inhabited planets at our fingertips. And we'll be able to explore those strange new worlds, and seek out new life, and new civilizations. This engine will let us go boldly, where no man has gone before. 

And at that the mind wonders upon the idea of this device floating through the cold stretches of space -- a doubly round manmade instrument in a universe dominated by curvature, creating oscillations of space which are in turn oscillated in intensity with a sinusoidal, rhythmic beat that could one day carry mankind across the stars.


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RE: Seems like fantasy
By geddarkstorm on 9/18/2012 2:45:47 PM , Rating: 2
Dark Energy might possibly be an example, as that is the sort of behavior the exotic matter would have. May well be that's what dark energy is; the effects of this exotic matter which may be what we call dark matter.

So much speculation though. As you say, there's no solidly known real world examples. But, since they are going to test this in the lab now, it seems we have a hypothesized way to do this without actual exotic matter (or to generate it temporarily into existence for a short time?).

RE: Seems like fantasy
By gwem557 on 9/18/2012 4:58:04 PM , Rating: 2
One possibility, I'm hoping:

Zero Point Energy

RE: Seems like fantasy
By teldar on 9/19/2012 9:19:40 AM , Rating: 2
The problem with dark matter is that it is dark because it interacts so weakly with other matter. There is some theoretical proof out is all over, there is just no easy way to detect it because of its nature.
Not to say it wouldn't be a possibility, but with its weak interaction, it would surprise me.

RE: Seems like fantasy
By geddarkstorm on 9/20/2012 10:54:02 AM , Rating: 2
Would something of negative density (which is what exotic matter is, matter with negative density!) be able to interact with normal matter, or light? The idea is it warps the fabric of space-time with its insane impossibility; but conceptually it's hard to imagine negative density matter interacting much or at all with normal matter in a direct sense... hence it might have the properties of dark matter as we see it. Absolute and complete conjecture! There are much better candidates for dark matter, but it's interesting to think about.

RE: Seems like fantasy
By Jaybus on 9/25/2012 4:17:08 PM , Rating: 2
Why do you say it interacts weakly? It is true that nobody has directly detected dark energy or dark matter, yet it is very easy to indirectly detect dark energy by measuring the acceleration of the expansion of the universe and dark matter by observing light from distant galaxies being altered by gravitational lensing. Perhaps nobody can DIRECTLY detect dark matter or energy simply because we have not yet encountered any.

Consider a bunch of soap bubbles in the ocean. An observer inside the soap bubble can directly observe phenomena inside his soap bubble. He can look outside of his soap bubble and observe that other soap bubbles are moving relative to him and measure the forces being applied to the other soap bubbles. If he cannot, from inside his bubble, see the water, then he can only conclude that some "dark" energy is affecting soap bubbles. Perhaps a galaxy is a soap bubble of ordinary matter and energy floating in a sea of dark matter and energy.

Now that the Higgs boson has been found, we must consider the Higgs field. Mass is determined by how strongly a particle interacts with the Higgs field. We usually consider a particle, say an electron, to have a fixed mass. However, that is only true in a uniform Higgs field. What if the Higgs field is not uniform. The same particle would have a greater mass in regions of higher Higgs flux than in regions of lower Higgs flux. Now if we move a particle from a low flux region to a high flux region, then it's mass increases. Since E = mC^2, then either energy is not conserved or the speed of light increases. But wait! If we move it back into the low flux region the mass returns to what it was before. So did we gain and then lose energy, thus preserving the conservation of energy, or is the speed of light dependent on the Higgs field as well?

We don't know, because nobody has been able to reconcile the standard model with general relativity. Something is missing, and we are basically waiting on the next Einstein to come along and discover it.

"The Space Elevator will be built about 50 years after everyone stops laughing" -- Sir Arthur C. Clarke

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