Ask Dr. SETI ®
by Dan Duda
from the December, 2013 issue of Penn Central,
the monthly newsletter of Central PA Mensa,
used by permission
The ability of any material object to move faster-than-light (FTL) is considered impossible according to Einstein's theory of relativity. The concept of "warp drive," which routinely achieves FTL travel was made popular by Gene Rodenberry's Star Trek series. But that was fiction. However, a serious study of FTL is now being conducted with funds made available by the US Defense Department's "Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency" (DARPA). Mae Jemison, a former astronaut, runs a related group, "100 Year Starship." This group's stated objective is to "... make the capability of human travel beyond our solar system to another star a reality within the next 100 years."
So the big question is 'how?' And the next question is 'wouldn't this overthrow Einstein's relativity?' The answer to the first question actually provides an answer to the second. The concept of 'warping' space-time provides a loophole in Einstein's mathematics. Relativity works when objects are actually moving through space relative to one another. But when space-time is warped a whole different dynamic is involved.
This is similar to the question 'how can galaxies be moving away from each other at FTL speeds?' The answer is 'they're not.' In that case, the universe is creating space between galaxies, which effectively causes a distance that only suggests FTL motion - they're not actually moving through space.
So, how does this apply to our future Starship Enterprise? "To enable fasterthan-light travel, the region behind the spacecraft would have to be made to expand rapidly while the region in front of the vehicle would contract just as quickly." [Newsmax, Sept 2013]. You might call it 'surfing space-time.' This also answers a couple questions that used to bother me about the Star Trek series. First, I thought that warp drive (FTL speeds) would cause a time conflict - in other words, time for the Earth and the universe would pass significantly faster than on the starship (the twin paradox). Second, there was no evident inertial effect on the crew as the Enterprise leapt forward into warp speed. But the science of warped space-time solves these dilemmas - the ship is not actually moving.
Star Trek's warp drive has been around since the 1960s. However, our story begins in 1994 with a Mexican theoretical physicist, Miguel Alcubierre, who published a paper in the scientific journal Classical and Quantum Gravity. The core of his concept involves transporting "... a volume of flat space inside a bubble of curved space" [Wikipedia]. "In principle, a warp bubble could move along arbitrarily quickly; the speed of light limitation of Einstein's theory applies only within space-time; not to distortions of space-time itself" [Popular Science, April 2013] Achieving this requires negative energy. Gravity is a force that attracts objects - negative energy is its opposite. Instead of curving space-time in a way that attracts objects, negative energy pushes it apart. This force is the key component in inflationary theory regarding the cosmological expansion following the Big Bang.
Currently at the center of this developing breakthrough is Harold G. White, who is a mechanical and aerospace engineer. He leads NASA's Engineering Directorate including the Eagleworks laboratory. He is conducting 'proof of concept' experiments for what is now being called the Alcubierre Drive. The warp drive concept would require enormous amounts of energy. In fact, an original estimate "... determined that a usable warp drive would require mass-energy equal to the planet Jupiter" [Newsmax, Sept 2013]. White believes he has solved that problem by modifications to the shape of a ring that would surround the spacecraft.
Once again, science fiction is leading the way to our scientific future. In the immortal words of Zefram Cochrane [Star Trek: First Contact], "I've got a 4-alarm hangover. It's either from all that whiskey, or your laser beam. Or both. But I'm ready to make history."
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this page last updated 7 December 2013
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