Summary: Star Trek fans longing to travel at warp factor 9, take heart: New research indicates that travel faster than the speed of light is theoretically possible.
Star Trek fans longing to travel at warp factor 9, take heart: New research indicates that travel faster than the speed of light is theoretically possible.
Theoretical physicist Chris Van Den Broeck, of the Catholic University in Leuven, Belgium, has come up with a new idea for a warp drive that would allow starships to travel at tremendous speeds through space, safely cushioned within a warp bubble.
"I started thinking, 'How do you fit a spaceship inside something very small?' It only took an hour or so to come up with the idea," Van Den Broeck said. "But I thought it would never work, so I left it in my drawer for a few months."
A few weeks ago, he resurrected the idea and quickly found a way to sidestep major theoretical obstacles to warp-speed travel.
Van Den Broeck began by improving upon calculations made by Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre, who startled the physics world five years ago with his assertion that warp-speed travel was not just the stuff of sci-fi starships.
Alcubierre proposed a warp bubble, a little region where a vessel could rest. The space contracts in front of the ship and expands behind it, allowing the bubble to warp space and surf through a wave of space-time, faster than the speed of light.
Many physicists were dubious.
"There are very strong constraints on a bubble," said Larry Ford, a professor of physics at Tufts University who refuted the theory in 1997. "It needs to be very thin and it requires an enormous amount of negative mass, larger than the order of the observable universe."
"The Alcubierre solution would require the energy of 1 billion galaxies," Ford said. "It would be an unrealistically large amount of negative mass."
But a few weeks ago, Van Den Broeck forged a path around Ford's findings. He came up with an alternative to Alcubierre's solution that would only require 1 gram of negative mass to travel at warp speed, quite a bit smaller than the originally thought billion galaxies.
"I considered a microscopically small warp bubble that doesn't need as much energy," he said. "But the problem is, you can't fit a spacecraft inside such a bubble."
Van Den Broeck's solution was a physics paradox: Blow up the volume, or the inside of the warp bubble, while maintaining the microscopic size of the bubble's exterior.
"You have a bubble smaller than the nucleus of an atom, but the diameter can be two hundred meters," he said. Better still, the increase in the volume of the bubble didn't require much energy. "That was the big surprise."
The results of Van Den Broeck's work, which will no doubt inflame the passions of warp-loving Trekkies, are posted on the Los Alamos National Laboratories Web site.
While Alcubierre's bubble was spherical, Van Den Broeck envisioned a bottle-shaped bubble with a large interior and an extremely narrow mass. In other words, the bubble's inside could be large enough to fit a starship, but the mouth, where the negative energy would be located, would be microscopic.
The idea is interesting, Ford said, but it still doesn't quite add up.
"The problem is, it's unclear how to get the ship into it, like a model ship in a glass bottle." he said. "Nobody knows if it's possible to open the mouth up without expending huge amounts of negative energy. There are still significant barriers to creating it."
Van Den Broeck agrees. Though his warp bubble could run on less than a gram of negative energy, it is still physically impossible to generate that much today. And there are other issues.
Van Den Broeck does not underestimate the challenge of what is largely a theoretical proposition. "To have a warp bubble, you need to be able to manipulate space-time on a very small scale, and we can't do that yet."