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SALT LAKE CITY — The coolest part of much science fiction, especially space operas like Star Wars and Star Trek, is the fact that they have hyperdrives and (the much nerdier) warp drives. They can blast through space faster than the universal speed limit. Well, real-life warp drives may be a lot more feasible than we initially thought. Scientists are already preparing for experiments.
Physicists working for NASA's "Eagleworks" laboratory, the informal name for a place dedicated to developing advanced propulsion systems, says that it would take much less energy to bend space-time than previously estimated. That means we should be able to travel around, and even beyond, our solar system at ten times the speed of light using a "warp bubble"
The idea was proposed in 1994 by Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre, who showed that it was theoretically possible and fleshed out some of the details.
"It's the same space, and the same standard of time, but if we can theoretically manipulate it for our purposes, interstellar flight could be an option on a future technology roadmap," said Eagleworks physicist Harold White.
Here's the concept: You can think of space a lot like a balloon with a grid drawn on it. If you blow up the balloon, the grid gets bigger, and if you shrink the balloon, the grid gets smaller. While we can't break the speed limit set by the universe, we can compress the space in front of us and expand the space behind us, just like the balloon, and therefore move "effectively" faster than the speed of light while still moving relatively slowly from the perspective of space itself.
The speed limit is not violated because the ship isn't really moving. The space around a warp bubble is being manipulated. From the perspective of someone on Earth or inside the bubble, folks will be going much faster than the speed of light. A trip to Alpha Centauri would take about two weeks. Traveling as fast as we are now currently able, it would take tens of thousands of years.
From a mathematical perspective, there is nothing wrong, either. Technically, there isn't even any acceleration going on, and someone inside the ship wouldn't even feel like they were moving. You simply turn on the drive, and two weeks later, you're there.
"The loopholes, amazingly, can be found in mathematical equations," White said.
The only problem was that the amount of energy it would require to bend space in the relevant way would be in the range of the size of Jupiter. Which is not exactly feasible. However, White showed in 2011 that by fine tuning space-time to be just the right shape, the energy required could be reduced to a mass of roughly one ton for a small ship. Or even less.
Eagleworks physicists aren't only focused on the theoretical possibilities. White says they have what's called a "White-Juday Warp Field Interferometer" that they intend to use to generate and detect a warp bubble.
"At JSC, Eagleworks has initiated an interferometer test bed that will try to generate and detect a microscopic instance of a little warp bubble. Although this is just a tiny instance of the phenomena, it will be existence proof for the idea of perturbing space time—a "Chicago pile" moment, as it were," White said.