Star Trek has long been credited with being at the forefront of technological—or treknological—advances, conceptualizing and showcasing high-tech gadgetry and scientific advancements that decades later are either in progress or actually a reality. But Star Trek’s best idea—that of warp drive, has so far eluded scientists looking to head into the far reaches of space.
Scientists have long debated the practicality of warp drive—or traveling faster than the speed of light. While some argue that the entire concept defies the laws of physics as we know it, others continue to press on in their effort to prove that warp drive could one day be a reality, sparking an era in which we would finally become a true space-voyaging species.
Warp Drive For Dummies
Warp drive is just plain awesome; after all, the idea of going where no man has gone before holds great appeal, and the opportunities it would afford are literally endless. But while scientists duke it out over the feasibility of this faster-than-light warp drive, those of us with a non-scientific brain are left befuddled as to what that means. What it really means.
So before we get into the possibilities, challenges, and opportunities of traveling faster than light, we must break it down into useable, everyday concepts for those of us who do not speak Science.
In Star Trek, warp drive is achieved when matter and antimatter collide in a fusion-like fashion, which is mediated by dilithium crystals. Of course, dilithium crystals don’t really exist, but the rest of the ingredients for warp drive really do exist.
The matter we’re talking about here is deuterium, which is a hydrogen gas—in real life. Antimatter exists too. While matter is composed of particles, antimatter is made up of antiparticles. Antimatter has the same mass and spin as its matter counterpart, but it has an opposite electric charge and opposite properties. When the antimatter and matter collide, they are both destroyed, creating a source of energy that would propel a spaceship at speeds greater than light travels.
Why “Givin’ Her All She’s Got, Captain” May Not Be Enough
There are several challenges to the concept of warp drive, but the greatest challenge is overcoming a little thing known as Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. The theory goes like this, according to Roger Rassool, physicist at the University of Melbourne:
“As objects travel faster and faster, they get heavier and heavier—the heavier they get, the harder it is to achieve acceleration, so you never get to the speed of light.”
Even if you could go faster than the speed of light, the energy it would take to do that is substantial. The amount of energy it would take is equal to the mass-energy of a total universe. Or does it?
Not all scientists are ready to give up on the idea just yet, despite it violating the Theory of Relativity and requiring more energy than is practical.
Warp Drive 2.0, The Alcubierre Workaround
In the ‘90s, physicist Miguel Alcubierre theorized about how we could get around that pesky Theory of Relativity by theorizing that a spaceship could travel at the speed of light without actually traveling at the speed of light—instead, the spaceship would travel inside a “wave”, created by stretching the fabric of spacetime.
But Alcubierre’s drive still would require a massive amount of energy, not to mention Alcubierre’s drive concept was just theoretical, with some arguing that it, too, was impossible.
But that didn’t stop NASA from carrying on with the experiments. And they did manage to make some progress. Again, theoretically speaking.
Warp Drive 2.1, The New Frontier
But progress in this field is ongoing, and in August, new work on this warp drive concept was presented by Joseph Agnew, undergraduate engineering student at University of Alabama in Huntsville’s Propulsion Research Center, who said at this year’s American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Propulsion and Energy Forum that he had watched Star Trek (both the old and new) and noticed how Star Trek had either predicted or inspired countless innovations. He has since spent the bulk of his academic career researching the idea of a warp drive.
“In my experience, the mention of warp drive tends to bring chuckles to the conversation because it is so theoretical and right out of science fiction. In fact, often it is met with dismissive remarks, and used as an example of something totally outlandish, which is understandable,” Agnew said.
In the last decade, progress has continued, leaving lots of “bite-size” problems still to be addressed, Agnew said, as opposed to one massive challenge.
All About the Energy
But if there were one big challenge with warp drive, it would be the energy; the amount of positive and negative energy that would be required to create the warp bubble outlined in the Alcubierre drive would be massive and impractical. Scientists agree that this would have to come from exotic matter, which would theoretically cut down the amount of energy required down to a mass the size of Jupiter.
What would it take?
To put this warp drive reality into practice, there are still many hurdles that remain, including major funding, progress in quantum physics and significant advancements in alternate forms of energy that would be sufficient to propel a starship through the solar system in a reasonable amount of time.