At last we got to see the full trailer for Chris Nolan's Insterstellar. The drama seems centred around a worldwide food crisis fired by climate change and resource depletion — a quite probable future. The space travel part seems equally plausible, showing what may be the first realistic depiction of a real warp drive.
Of course, warp drives are not real. Yet (hopefully?) But physicist have theorised about it and NASA has a small group of people working on them. I'm firmly in the camp of "if we can imagine it, we can build it." But we will get to that later. Watch the trailer first:
The realistic climate change and resource scarcity scenario
I completely buy the trailer's vision of a future weather and resource global crisis. The global data is unquestionable. Man-made or not, I don't care, the fact is that climate change is happening. It's drastic and it's accelerating, and we may not be able to stop it at this point.
Computer simulations show that we are headed to a place where humanity hasn't been before. The projections are so bad that the military have deemed it a national security threat already. And trust me, the men and women of the Pentagon are not tree-hugging hippies.
As climate changes, everything changes. We are already seeing the effects on agriculture, with ruined crops and food scarcity in many parts of the world. Or better said, we are not seeing it — people who live in third world countries are. Our oceans' fisheries are also dwindling quickly, with many species on the verge of exhaustion.
Combine this with the millions of poor people getting out of poverty conditions in China, India, South America and Africa. They are consuming more and more of resources that are already scarce. More food. More energy. More oil. More everything. Even if the population doesn't go up, the demand will keep increasing at a fast rate. It's not going to stop.
Still, I'm an optimistic person who thinks that science may save us at the last minute. Perhaps that's Nolan's thesis — or perhaps it's the contrary. We don't really know yet. But I have no doubt that we are headed into this direction.
A hopefully possible interplanetary travel scenario
In the trailer we can see the space crew going into this:
It's some sort of portal, some gravitational bubble that looks very much like this picture of a gravitational lens seen by the Hubble Space Telescope.
It's been reported that Nolan has been talking to astrophysicists and aerospace experts about it. I'm sure one of them has been Dr Harold "Sonny" White, at the Advanced Propulsion Theme Lead for the NASA Engineering Directorate. Back in 2012 I wrote this article about his efforts, explaining why something like the type of travel portrayed in Interstellar may become a reality. It's reproduced below:
"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 have 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 somebadass 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 500 kilograms to "send a 10-metre bubble at an effective velocity of 10c."
Ten c! That's ten 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.
So yeah, I am really excited for Interstellar
I keep reminding myself not to build up my expectations because I may get disappointed, but I can't. This movie is going to be scary and exciting. Scary because this future may be around the corner and we may not find a solution in time. And exciting because this may be the first science fiction movie that shows interstellar travel in a plausible way.
How interstellar travel is part of the solution to our problems, I have no clue whatsoever. We will have to wait to see.