New warp drive concept does twist space, doesn’t move us very fast (2024)

New warp drive concept does twist space, doesn’t move us very fast (1)

A team of physicists has discovered that it’s possible to build a real, actual, physical warp drive and not break any known rules of physics. One caveat: the vessel doing the warping can’t exceed the speed of light, so you’re not going to get anywhere interesting any time soon. But this research still represents an important advance in our understanding of gravity.

Moving without motion

Einstein’s general theory of relativity is a toolkit for solving problems involving gravity that connects mass and energy with deformations in spacetime. In turn, those spacetime deformations instruct the mass and energy how to move. In almost all cases, physicists use the equations of relativity to figure out how a particular combination of objects will move. They have some physical scenario, like a planet orbiting a star or two black holes colliding, and they ask how those objects deform spacetime and what the subsequent evolution of the system should be.

But it’s also possible to run Einstein’s math in reverse by imagining some desired motion and asking what kind of spacetime deformation can make it possible. This is how the Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre discovered the physical basis for a warp drive—long a staple of the Star Trek franchise.

The goal of a warp drive is to get from A to B in the time between commercial breaks, which typically involves faster-than-light motion. But special relativity expressly forbids speeds faster than light. While this never bothered the writers of Star Trek, it did irritate Alcubierre. He discovered that it was possible to build a warp drive through a clever manipulation of spacetime, arranging it so that space in front of a vessel gets scrunched up and the space behind the vessel stretched out. This generates motion without, strictly speaking, movement.

It sounds like a contradiction, but that’s just one of the many wonderful aspects of general relativity. Alcubierre’s warp drive avoids violations of the speed-of-light limit because it never moves through space; instead space itself is manipulated to, in essence, bring the spacecraft’s destination closer to it.

While tantalizing, Alcubierre’s design has a fatal flaw. To provide the necessary distortions of spacetime, the spacecraft must contain some form of exotic matter, typically regarded as matter with negative mass. Negative mass has some conceptual problems that seem to defy our understanding of physics, like the possibility that if you kick a ball that weighs negative 5 kilograms, it will go flying backwards, violating conservation of momentum. Plus, nobody has ever seen any object with negative mass existing in the real Universe, ever.

These problems with negative mass have led physicists to propose various versions of “energy conditions” as supplements to general relativity. These aren’t baked into relativity itself, but add-ons needed because general relativity allows things like negative mass that don’t appear to exist in our Universe—these energy conditions keep them out of relativity’s equations. They’re scientists’ response to the unsettling fact that vanilla GR allows for things like superluminal motion, but the rest of the Universe doesn’t seem to agree.

Warp factor zero

The energy conditions aren’t experimentally or observationally proven, but they are statements that concord with all observations of the Universe, so most physicists take them rather seriously. And until recently, physicists have viewed those energy conditions as making it absolutely 100 percent clear that you can’t build a warp drive, even if you really wanted to.

But there is a way around it, discovered by an international team of physicists led by Jared Fuchs at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. (The team is also affiliated with the Applied Propulsion Laboratory of Applied Physics, a virtual think tank dedicated to the research of, among many other things, warp drives.) In a paper accepted for publication in the journal Classical and Quantum Gravity, the researchers dug deep into relativity to explore if any version of a warp drive could work.

The equations of general relativity are notoriously difficult to solve, especially in complex cases such as a warp drive. So the team turned to software algorithms; instead of trying to solve the equations by hand, they explored their solutions numerically and verified that they conformed to the energy conditions.

The team did not actually attempt to construct a propulsion device. Instead, they explored various solutions to general relativity that would allow travel from point to point without a vessel undergoing any acceleration or experiencing any overwhelming gravitational tidal forces within the vessel, much to the comfort of any imagined passengers. They then checked whether these solutions adhered to the energy conditions that prevent the use of exotic matter.

The researchers did indeed discover a warp drive solution: a method of manipulating space so that travelers can move without accelerating. There is no such thing as a free lunch, however, and the physicality of this warp drive does come with a major caveat: the vessel and passengers can never travel faster than light. Also disappointing: the fact that the researchers behind the new work don’t seem to bother with figuring out what configurations of matter would allow the warping to happen.

New warp drive concept does twist space, doesn’t move us very fast (2024)


New warp drive concept does twist space, doesn’t move us very fast? ›

The researchers did indeed discover a warp drive solution: a method of manipulating space so that travelers can move without accelerating. There is no such thing as a free lunch, however, and the physicality of this warp drive does come with a major caveat: the vessel and passengers can never travel faster than light.

What is the problem with warp drive? ›

The Alcubierre Drive poses a substantial risk related to radiation. As the warp bubble travels, it captures photons, particles, or even astronauts along its path. When the drive stops at its destination, these particles, having been dragged along at superluminal speeds, are released with immense energy.

Is warping space faster than light? ›

Some argue that these effects mean that although it's not possible to travel faster than the speed of light, both space and time "warp" to allow travelling the distance of one light year, in less than a year. Although it is not possible to travel faster than the speed of light, the effective speed is faster than light.

Why is warp speed impossible? ›

The study of quantum mechanics shows that even empty space has energy and anything that has less energy than empty space has "negative energy." The problem (among many) is that no one knows how to get negative energy in huge amounts to power the warp drives.

Does warp drive bend space? ›

According to Star Trek canon, the warp drive works by creating a “warp bubble” around the spaceship, inside of which space is literally warped. In front of the spaceship, space is compressed, while behind the vessel, it is expanded.

How realistic is warp drive? ›

According to Einstein's theory of relativity, going faster than the speed of light is off-limits in the real world. For this reason, warp drives, like the one powering spaceships in Star Wars and other science fiction movies, have always been firmly in the realm of imagination — until now.

What is the science behind the warp drive? ›

Warp drives work by compressing the space in front of you and expanding that behind you. Hence your speed through space is either zero or pretty close to zero and thus the crew will not experience any time dilation effects.

Will warp drive ever be possible? ›

A provisional answer is “no.” According to the accepted laws of science, nothing can travel faster than light. Even though light is fast enough to circle the Earth over seven times in a single second, space is very large.

Can warp drive travel back in time? ›

Calculations by physicist Allen Everett show that warp bubbles could be used to create closed timelike curves in general relativity, meaning that the theory predicts that they could be used for backwards time travel.

Could a warp drive breakthrough make interstellar travel possible? ›

This theoretical propulsion system holds the power to bend the very fabric of spacetime, providing us with a means to traverse vast cosmic distances. It's a concept that reads like science fiction but is grounded in the principles of modern physics.

Did Darpa really create a warp bubble? ›

Or at least it was science fiction until the world's first warp bubble was accidentally discovered by DARPA funded researchers, according to the scientists report. It was discovered by the Limitless Space Institute (LS) team led by former NASA warp drive expert Dr. Harold G “Sonny” White.

Is superluminal speed possible? ›

Based on our current understanding of physics and the limits of the natural world, the answer, sadly, is no. According to Albert Einstein's theory of special relativity, summarized by the famous equation E=mc2, the speed of light (c) is something like a cosmic speed limit that cannot be surpassed.

What are the dangers of warp travel? ›

An unprotected human in the Warp may be possessed by alien, daemonic entities or driven insane by the phantasmal environment itself. People disappear without trace, while crazed mobs rampage through the decks living out their nightmares, leading to widespread murder and self-destruction.

Does warp drive violate causality? ›

Its possible for space-time itself to expand and shrink faster than light. This is why distant-enough galaxies are receding from us at faster than the speed of light. Mathematically, the structure of the proposed warp-drive is such that the spaceship is moving at << c locally, so no causality is violated.

Will humans ever be able to travel at warp speed? ›

“In order to have a bubble about 100 meters wide traveling at precisely the speed of light, you would need about 100 times the mass of the planet Jupiter converted into negative energy, which of course sounds absurd,” he says. By that standard, he concludes, a warp drive is very unlikely.


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