NASA Starts Development On Real-Life Star Trek Warp Drive

"Perhaps a Star Trek experience within our lifetime is not such a remote possibility." These are the words of Dr Harold "Sonny" White, the Advanced Propulsion Theme Lead for the NASA Engineering Directorate. Dr White and his colleagues don't just believe a real-life warp drive is theoretically possible; they've already started the work to create one.

Yes. A real warp drive, Scotty.

When it comes to space exploration, we are still cavemen. We got to the moon and sent some badass robot to Mars. We also have those automatic doors that swoosh wide open when you get near them, but that's about it. It's cool, but we are far from being the space civilisation we'll need to become to survive for millennia.

With our current propulsion technologies, interstellar flight is impossible. Even with experimental technology, like ion thrusters or a spaceship's aft pooping freaking nuclear explosions, it would require staggering amounts of fuel and mass to get to any nearby star. And worse: it will require decades — centuries, even — to get there. The trip will be meaningless for those left behind. Only the ones going forward in search for a new star system would enjoy the result of the colossal effort. It's just not practical.

So we need an alternative. One that would allow us to travel extremely fast without breaking the laws of physics. Or as Dr White puts it: "we want to go, really fast, while observing the 11th commandment: Thou shall not exceed the speed of light."

Searching for Warp Bubbles

The answer lies precisely in those laws of physics. Dr White and other physicists have found loopholes in some mathematical equations — loopholes that indicate that warping the space-time fabric is indeed possible.

Working at NASA Eagleworks — a skunkworks operation deep at NASA's Johnson Space Center — Dr White's team is trying to find proof of those loopholes. They have "initiated an interferometer test bed that will try to generate and detect a microscopic instance of a little warp bubble" using an instrument called the White-Juday Warp Field Interferometer.

It may sound like a small thing now, but the implications of the research huge. In his own words:

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. Recall that December of 1942 saw the first demonstration of a controlled nuclear reaction that generated a whopping half watt. This existence proof was followed by the activation of a ~ four megawatt reactor in November of 1943. Existence proof for the practical application of a scientific idea can be a tipping point for technology development.

By creating one of these warp bubbles, the spaceship's engine will compress the space ahead and expand the space behind, moving it to another place without actually moving, and carrying none of the adverse effects of other travel methods. According to Dr White, "by harnessing the physics of cosmic inflation, future spaceships crafted to satisfy the laws of these mathematical equations may actually be able to get somewhere unthinkably fast — and without adverse effects."

He says that, if everything is confirmed in these practical experiments, we would be able to create an engine that will get us to Alpha Centauri "in two weeks as measured by clocks here on Earth". The time will be the same in the spaceship and on Earth, he claims, and there will not be "tidal forces inside the bubble, no undue issues, and the proper acceleration is zero. When you turn the field on, everybody doesn't go slamming against the bulkhead, which would be a very short and sad trip."

The Energy Problem Solved

There was only one problem with all this: where does the energy come from? While we knew that warp drives were theoretically possible, physicists have always argued that they would require a ball of exotic matter the size of Jupiter to power it. Clearly, that was not practical. But thankfully, Dr. White has found a solution that changes the game completely.

The Eagleworks team has discovered that the energy requirements are much lower than previously thought. If they optimise the warp bubble thickness and "oscillate its intensity to reduce the stiffness of space time", they would be able to reduce the amount of fuel to manageable amount: instead of a Jupiter-sized ball of exotic matter, you will only need 500kg to "send a 10m bubble (32.8 feet) at an effective velocity of 10c."

Ten c! That's 10 times the speed of light, people (remember, the ship itself would not go faster than the speed of light. But effectively it will seem like it does).

That means that we would be able to visit Gliese 581g — a planet similar to Earth 20 light years away from our planet — in two years. Two years is nothing. It took Magellan three years to circumnavigate around our home planet — from August 1519 to September 1522. A four-year roundtrip to see a planet like Earth is completely doable. And there are even closer destinations where we can send robots or astronauts.

The important thing is that there is now a door open to a different kind of exploration. That, like Dr. White says, "perhaps a Star Trek experience within our lifetime is not such a remote possibility." We may be witnessing the very beginning of a new age of space exploration, one that would finally take us from our pale blue dot back to where we belong.

I don't know about you, but I'm more excited than when Captain Kirk got his first unobtonanium underpants.

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    What an incredible time to be alive. I honestly cannot wait to see what comes of this.

      Unfortunately we probably won't be around to see what comes of it. And thats a bit sad

        I dunno man, I plan on sticking around for the next 40-50 years or so, and anything can happen in that time. I guess we'll have to wait and see :P

          You know what, you are absolutely right, all we need to do is hold out till the singularity, so we can live forever as machines!

        It only took 66 years from the Wright Brothers to the moon landing...

          It only took the military about 8 years from the Wright Brothers first flight to use a plane as a bomber. Imagine if the military could use the tech as first strike capability against ET. We'd be warping sooner.

            Who's up for starting an intergalactic war???

        Well the most technological advancements happen during war. Take the Atom bomb for example, microwaves, radio.

        Last edited 10/01/13 9:03 am

      it really is, i'm so excited just reading this, even knowing that it could amount to nothing, just the fact that there are ridiculously smart people working to propel mankind forward who think they have a plausible lead to achieving that goal makes me feel like a kid in a candy store

      You think? The pinnacle of human achievement occurred 43 years ago and since then we've done nothing to be proud of or amazed at. I think my parents and their parents got to see the best of human achievement, what we are seeing is more the decline of this epoch of civilisation.

        I disagree. I think the internet has changed the game more than man on the moon. We now live in a world of exponential knowledge sharing. skies the limit!

          It may have "changed the game" but it is hard to see that as an achievement. WWII "changed the game" more than the internet has, I'd suggest. Even the humble automobile "changed the game" more than the internet but it was not really a big achievement in and of itself.

            The car not a big achievement? Do you actually read the dribble you type?

              The internet is a massive achievement for human kind. not only does it provide massive wealth's of human history, information and other stuff but it provides near instant communication to ANYONE around the world. if you ask me it is one of the most advanced pieces of technology we own.

              Last edited 10/01/13 9:07 am

              That would be "drivel".

            We've only begun to scratch the surface of the potential of the internet. We have barely scratched the surface of medical science. We've barely scratched the surface of the workings of the brain. We've barely scratched the surface of genetics... speaking of which the mapping of the human genome was quite an achievement. We've only begun to understand some of the fundamental forces of the universe (we still know bugger all about gravity - only just discovered the Higgs). Once we make significant inroads into quantum computing the analytical power that would unlock would significantly increase discovery in other fields.. there are plenty of exciting things ahead. You just have to read the scientific journals instead of mainstream media...

        43 years ago we didn't have computers that fit into the palm of your hand. We hadn't sent three robots to mars. My handheld calculator is more powerful than what put man on the moon. We're able to communicate with just about any person in the world effortlessly at any time we wish, and yeah we had telephones back then but they weren't nearly as incredible as the communication we benefit from today.

        The world we live in and the technology we have is absolute incredible when you think about it, and I'm shocked that anyone could think otherwise.

          Toasty I think MM is talking about more than just technology. Yes we have more powerful computers that fit in our hand but we also have the failing economies, unpayable world debt, religious uprisings, the Kardatians and Justin Beaber. Hardly comparable to an achievement of that size with hat they had

          Exactly! A hand-held calculator is more powerful than the computers that sent man to the moon, yet all we've managed since is a couple of robot probes to Mars (after a couple of fairly spectacular failures, I might add). Voyager completely eclipses that achievement and they were launched more than 40 years ago, too. Communicating with anyone we want, anywhere in the world has been relatively simple since Apollo XI. After all, it was estimated back then that 1 in 6 humans on the planet watched it live. When has anything united the planet like that since? If anything, we have seen in the past week just how divisive the internet can be.

            Have to disagree there. Landing a vehicle on mars in our time is more difficult than launching and guiding voyager was in that time.

        I see your point, but I still disagree. We proved all those years ago that we CAN reach the moon. While it'd be fantastic if we did it again, the only real reason we're not doing it is financial. However, the next step is already upon us with commercial space travel. How long will it be before a regular John Citizen can afford space travel? Probably longer than it took for commercial flight to reach the masses, but it's coming and that's cool!!

          "Financial" is shorthand for "we are too small-minded and concerned only with our immediate welfare to have the vision to do things that might actually advance humanity". Its not a compelling argument.

            Another good point, but once more I disagree. Being concerned with our immediate welfare isn't a bad thing, I don't think that given the world's current economic state, governments could really afford the type of investment that would see a person set foot on Mars. What's more, there were additional factors motivating humanity to reach for the stars back in the '60s. Let's be realistic, the Apollo missions were driven as much by military fear through the Cold War as they were by scientific endeavour and human progression. If the USA thought that colonising Mars presented a key opportunity to thwart terrorist activities, I'm sure it would be on the table for discussion.

            But we also need to recognise that society no longer NEEDS to be driven by State owned and funded entities. They've still got their place, after all NASA just landed a nuclear powered truck on the surface of Mars using a rocket powered sky-crane!! But today we have multi-billion dollar investors looking to harvest asteroids for minerals, that's pretty freaking amazing! And as mentioned earlier, we're on the cusp of affordable space travel and tourism. We might be doing things differently and we might not be taking the most direct route, but humanity is steadily marching forwards.

            Sending more men to the moon is hardly advancing humanity. Sure we could do it for billions of dollars. But we'd gain nothing. Mankind had just become more sensible over the last few decades.

        I disagree 100%.

        Our greatest achievement is understanding the universe, and that means physics.

        I'll name Newton, Maxwell, Einstein, Planck. These days physics needs teams more often than individuals, but discovering the Higgs was just as basic as discovering a whole new element.

        Compared to increasing our understanding of the whole universe, who could possibly give an arse about standing on the moon?

    what's "exotic matter" and where do I buy some?

      Dark matter. Can't be bought, you need a pet named nibbler..

        hahaha. gold.

      They come in Brown paper bags down at the newsagent.

    Warp speed, Mr. Sulu!

    One problem I see with this is how do they communicate with the ship? It doesn't seem possible to deal with the lag that would induce. And no communication would not be feasible, because if the ship didn't show up after the two year trip, they'd wait another year to make sure they're not late or something.

      I can't these things being obstacles to getting the job done. After all, Magellan couldn't communicate with his homeland either, and he managed OK. Quantum entanglement could be a solution, if one is required, otherwise it would require simple patience. Alternatively, they could stage the journey, "dropping out of warp" at regular intervals to send back progress reports. Who knows, it may end up being how the system works most effectively - as a series of jumps rather than continual motion?

        Some sort of message drone may be a good way of doing this.

        A small drone could potentially move faster and a warp capable ship, allowing messages to be sent quicker. And could also be used to scout ahead too, send the drone ahead and as soon as you arrive you can be sending a message back immediately

          You cannot use entanglement to send information faster than the speed of light. The warp drive solution to Einstein's field equations is valid however and we have known about it for some time. See Getting it to work in real life is another matter.

          Both good answers. :)

      Stop off at an intergalactic maccas and use their free wifi.

      Carrier pigeon in a warp bubble

      Quantum entanglement communicator...

      Already in devlopment and theoretically proven for sometime.

      Instant communication

      There was that story about faster than light travel, a pulse within a pulse. Who knows, maybe something like that.

    Yeeah, i'd love to see a NASA link for these pages... all i get is 404 errors, and links back to gizmodo.

    I just can wait to utter the immortal words: I for one welcome our new space overloads!

    Hmmm... 500kg for a 32ft bubble is not leaving a lot of space for anything else, like the engine that uses it, life support systems, etc. You might think that it will improve over time but I imagine that these are already theoretical figures that represent the most efficiency we can hope for. i.e That early examples will be far less efficient than this. I am more than a little sceptical but I wish them all the luck in the universe.

      When dealing with volume, my maths isn't the best, so please correct any problems you spot in my calculations.

      The heaviet known element according to volume is either osmium or iridium, weighing in at 22.61 g/cm3. Let's assume for a best-case-scenario that our fuel is at least comparable to this figure. 500kg of this works out at ~221m3 which would quite easily fit inside a 10m diameter bubble, leaving ~300m3 for the engine and the rest of the ship (the volume of that bubble works out at ~523m3). So ultimately, yeah, the machinery would need to be relatively compact for this propulsion system to work under these ideal assumptions, but you can still pack a lot into 300m3.

      What's more, if the method they theorise to optimise the bubble thickness and oscillate its intensity to reduce the stiffness of space time becomes more efficient (didnt' think I'd type THAT sentence when I woke up this morning!), then the fuel requirements drop and you can fit more inside your bubble.

      HOWEVER! The article doesn't expand on how far you can move that bubble, only on how fast (relatively speaking) you can make it move. No point going at 10c if we can only reach the outer atmosphere!

        My question exactly. How many kilometres to the litre does this thing get?

        Calcs a little off there Jester, hell they're well off.

        22.61 g/cm3 is the same as 22,610 kg/m3, so if using either osmium or iridium as you have suggested the total volume for 500kg will be ~0.023 m3 plenty of room :D

          Hahaha, told you my maths for volume was bad!!! Looks like I missed an entire bank of decimals when converting from cm3 to m3 :oP

          Oh well, the likelihood of this type of engine existing just got a massive boost. I've never been happier to be wrong!

          Thanks Owen :o)

    Hate to be a fly in the ointment, but I want to see the science before I believe Jesus Diaz, he's written some silly shit in the past! From what I can see in the 'NASA Eagleworks' page, this is all just speculation. I'll have the party when I see verification.

      Its from the 100YSS, there's plenty from other sources on the interwebs if you look.

        Yeah, I just checked that site and there's bugger all about it there and quite frankly there's bugger all about it anywhere. Just speculation and hyperbole.

    So they've reduced it from 99.9999999% impossible to 99.9999995% impossible, woot!
    It is a good progression, but there are some serious hurdles still to overcome. Like manufacturing exotic matter in sufficient quantitities, controlling the bubble, navigating while at warp speeds, equipment and passenger survival, etc...

    Maybe, someone in the future will travel forward in time far enough to be able to invent a drive which allows people to travel back in time. Then that person will travel back to some time in the past, and then give the current NASA guys the technology. So, technically we could start travelling in time yesterday.


    If this is in fact true and works, what would it mean for travel here on boring old earth?

    I don't see how this is possible, Zephram Cochrane hasn't been born yet.

    What? wait a minute, warp bubble? Who first theorised this warp bubble effect and where is his Nobel prize? This all seems too quick, like we've been given this technology from someone or something else. From 50 zillion kg combustion rocket made of metal to FTL warp in one jump??? Where's all the stuff in between leading up to this discovery? Anyone else think this is very sudden?

      Anyway, aliens will vaporise our planet long before they will let us apes rape and pillage the galaxy, even if it is only the trashy end of town.

      Could it be that Sci Fi writer are really time travelers and that is the way they introduce technological concepts to push the development of technologies to guide us to a particular future?

    Every instance of "Dr.White", I read as "Dr.Who"

    Come back in a century and I guarantee this will still be a long long way off. Exciting yes, close to reality absolutely not. Next they be telling us they'll open an Einstein-Rosen bridge.

      I think the last century has shown its foolish to guess what we will or wont know in a century!

    Im thrilled! Allready started putting together the welcome home signs.. i would like to know, what would Steven Hawking say about all this pure awesomeness.

    I suspect this is completely made up? Google searches in the News area fail to return the results.

    So... Those arcade space games where you collect the power up bubbles may indeed be based on real life. Can't remember the name of a specific game, but they're out there!

    MitchR - Google search shows up plenty of results for me, try checking your search terms. "NASA Alcubierre", Alcubierre being the pioneer theoretical physicist who came up with the principle.

    I'm just happy that legitimate research is being done in this field. If it's possible, the possibilities for exploration are amazing!
    I'd happily sign up for a 10 year round trip exploring random nearby star systems looking for human sustainable worlds!

    Now to solve the small problem of radiation. A 2 year trip would expose a person to potentially lethal does of radiation. Until we have a means of protecting astronauts from the radiation, they won't survive the trip.

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