By JiaJia Fu
"Space, the final frontier. These are the voyagers of the starship -- Enterprise.. Its continuing mission: to explore, strange new worlds; to seek out new life, and new civilizations; to boldly go where no one has gone before!"
The exploration conveyed by this iconic opening monologue of the sci-fi franchise Star Trek is made possible by one fictitious technology -- the warp drive. A fixture of science fiction like the works of Isaac Asimov and later Star Trek, warp technology powers the boldly-going and exploration, on which Star Trek is based. Warp technology theoretically provides faster-than-light propulsion, allowing vessels, starships, and spacecraft to travel throughout the universe at speeds that surpass the speed of light. Humans subsequently discovered that we are not alone in the universe, joined a united society with other warp-capable alien species, and restructured society for the sole purpose of discovery and space exploration. Although this sounds like a very fruitful, futuristic utopia, this is where the fiction half of science fiction catches up.
Space is big. The nearest star system to Earth, Alpha Centauri, is 4.3 light years or approximately 25 million miles (equivalent to over 100 trips to the moon!) away, and would take roughly 78,000 years to reach through our fastest, current means of space travel. A warp jump would technically allow us to arrive in mere hours; however, Einsteinian physics dictates that we simply cannot cross the light barrier, with the special relativity stating that the speed of light (186,000 mi/sec or around 300,000 m/s) is essentially the speed limit for all matter or particles in the universe. Before Einstein, the common belief was that time was constant and experienced by all observers, in all places, in the same way, and at the same rate. However, Einstein formulated that the speed of light is constant, regardless of the velocity of the observer. For example, if a cannon fires a cannonball at 100 miles per hour from a moving train also moving at 100 miles per hour in the same direction, the total velocity of the cannonball is 200 miles per hour. However when light is shone from a stationary flashlight and travels across space, it travels at 299,792,458 meters per second. If that flashlight was attached to the same moving train traveling at 100 miles per hour (or 44.704 meters per second), the speed at which the light would travel remains at 299,792,458 meters per second. There is no apparent change to the light's total speed. Einstein compensated for these discrepancies with the concept of time dilation -- the speed of light can only remain constant if an observer traveling at faster speeds experiences time more slowly. This is amplified when nearer to the speed of light as time moves increasingly slower when approaching the light barrier. For instance, if you were able to travel to Alpha Centauri at 99.9 percent the speed of light, the journey would take a little longer than 5 days. But from the perspective of an observer on Earth, it would take over 4.25 years.
Despite the fact real warp drives are very much fictional, theoretical physicists have toyed with the concept of warping space to achieve faster than light velocities, for example most notably, the Alcubierre Drive. Named after physicist Miguel Albucierre after formulating the concept in 1999, he theoretically sidesteps the light barrier constraint by warping space itself, therefore not breaking time and the fabric of the universe. Instead of accelerating faster than light in normal spacetime, a ship equipped with the drive would form a localized bubble around the ship, which contracts, or pulls space in front of it and expands space behind it, cinching space to pull the vessel through space faster than light without breaking any physical laws. Based on a solution for Einstein’s Field Equations for general relativity, the cabin of the ship itself would sit in a bubble of zero gravity, protecting its crew from both dilation and being crushed as space time is being folded. Unfortunately, the mechanism mathematically requires vast amounts of negative energy (the volume of a galaxy later found to be able to be shrunk to the volume of Jupiter), which is not confirmed to exist, from potentially manipulating exotic matter or dark energy. With additional paradoxes - travelling back in time by breaking the light barrier - and implications spanning astrophysics to quantum theory (which this model fails to incorporate), this concept seems very much in the hypothetical realm.
However, continued research like that of Dr. Harold White of NASA’s Johnson Space Center has shown that even if the warp drive may not be possible, it may be much less impossible than previously thought. After analyzing Alcubierre’s equations, White discovered that making the torus of negative energy thicker, while reducing the space available for the ship, allowed the size of the torus to be greatly decreased down to a width of 10 m (30 ft) for a ship traveling ten times the speed of light. In this setup a ship could reach Alpha Centauri in just around five months, with oscillating the bubble around the craft reducing the stiffness of spacetime and making it easier to distort. This would also reduce the amount of negative energy required by several orders of magnitude, making it possible to design a craft that, rather than being the size of Jupiter, is smaller than the Voyager 1 probe.
So if warp is possible, why haven’t we developed it already? Are we going to be hurtling through space and exploring the stars anytime soon? Is faster than light travel even possible? We aren’t certain, and it seems unlikely, although new strides in research are making this much less slim of a possibility than it was two decades ago. Thanks to the imagination of storytelling and the creativity of science, one day, engaging warp cores and exploring the final frontier might not be as far-fetched as we think.