The gap between science fiction and science fact is getting smaller every day. Dr. Harold “Sonny” White of the Advanced Propulsion Theme Lead for the NASA Engineering Directorate and his team of engineers are currently working on building an actual warp drive. Yes, a warp drive like in Star Trek. The theoretical physics behind a warp drive are concrete and now NASA wants to try to build one.
So far, NASA’s ventures into space have been pretty conservative when considering a universal scale. We’ve been to the Moon and back, and we’ve sent a robot to Mars, but so far traveling beyond our own star system has seemed like a nigh impossible task. The amount of fuel needed for craft to reach even the nearest stars would be astronomical. It would also involve breaking the laws of physics in respect to going faster than the speed of light. But Dr. White may have found a loophole to help turn warp drive from flight of fancy to real possibility. His goal: “We want to go, really fast, while observing the 11th commandment: Thou shall not exceed the speed of light.”
White and his team are searching for a microscopic instance of what they call a “warp bubble.” If they can find one, even one that small, it will suggest that it could be applied in larger and more dramatic ways. The eventual goal would be to build an engine that, just as in Star Trek, could compress the space ahead of it while expanding the space behind it, making the engine travel without actually moving, thus getting to its destination ludicrously fast. As Dr. White states, “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.” So how fast is unthinkably fast? If such a technology is created and works the way White claims it could, we could get to Alpha Centauri in two weeks. Yes, I said weeks.
But figuring out the key equation isn’t the only thing required to build an effective warp drive. Engineers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center are trying to solve the fuel and energy problems a warp-driven spacecraft would need. It was believed that you’d need a “Jupiter-sized ball of exotic matter” to fuel a ship to go this fast but, Dr. White’s work suggests otherwise. To optimize the warp bubble thickness, you would only need “500 kilograms (of exotic matter) to send a 10-meter bubble at an effective velocity of 10c.” That’s 10 times the speed of light. Of course the ship wouldn’t travel this fast, it would only appear as if it did.
These are the first steps toward potentially opening up the galaxy in a real way. Dr. White said of the project, “Perhaps a Star Trek experience within our lifetime is not such a remote possibility.”