Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Warp Drive Just Became Much More Possible

Buried in the news flood from last week was an intriguing story about the real scientific research being carried out on warp drive.  Warp drive, the ability to exceed the speed of light in travel by bending the fabric of space time around a space ship, is a staple of science fiction.   Interstellar travel is made difficult by a simple fact.  As Douglas Adams so aptly described it:
"Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space."
Distances to astronomical bodies outside the solar system are usually given in light years, the distance light travels at 186,000 miles per second.   There are 5.879 Trillion miles (soon to be called 5.879 Bernanke miles) in a light year and the nearest stars are just over 4 light years away.  A trip without warp drive requires much more than four years because acceleration to light speed has to be slow enough to not kill the crew.  Acceleration has to be limited to one G or so.  When you warp space/time the ship is unaffected, and to the people on board it feels as if nothing is going on.  If you went the speeds we can currently go, it would take generations to travel to the nearest stars.
The idea of bending space time became an area of real scientific research some time ago, and a concept for a real-life warp drive was suggested in 1994 by Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre.  His system had a substantial problem, though: it required the energy you'd get by turning a planet the size of Jupiter into energy.   Since Jupiter-sized planets aren't convenient to carry around for fuel, and aren't just floating around everywhere, that's a bit of a problem. 

Years ago, someone told me that once something has been shown to be theoretically possible by they physicists, the rest was just an engineering problem, "implementation details".  Last week, Harold “Sonny” White of NASA’s Johnson Space Center announced that by reconsidering the geometry of the ring around the football-shaped spacecraft (shown here, poetically, with football laces) they can bring the energy down to much more achievable levels. 
But recently White calculated what would happen if the shape of the ring encircling the spacecraft was adjusted into more of a rounded donut, as opposed to a flat ring. He found in that case, the warp drive could be powered by a mass about the size of a spacecraft like the Voyager 1 probe NASA launched in 1977.

Furthermore, if the intensity of the space warps can be oscillated over time, the energy required is reduced even more, White found.
According to the Wiki entry, Voyager 1 weighed 1592 pounds which is like 1 godzillionth of the weight of Jupiter.   Suddenly warp drive got much more possible.  So possible, in fact, that they have started experiments in the laboratory to see if they can make a micro version time/space warp.
They set up what they call the White-Juday Warp Field Interferometer at the Johnson Space Center, essentially creating a laser interferometer that instigates micro versions of space-time warps.

“We’re trying to see if we can generate a very tiny instance of this in a tabletop experiment, to try to perturb space-time by one part in 10 million,” White said.
According to Star Trek canon, the first human powered warp drive flight was/will be conducted in  2063 by Zefram Cochran.  According to the film "First Contact", Cochran was born in 2013.

2063?  You know, it just might work out to be pretty close to 2063. The movie also implies that warp drive would have been invented sooner if not for the effects of World War III.


  1. You need gravity to warp space and time. If it was possible, don't you think we would have been visited by alien races by now?

    1. We are the "Springer Show" of our universe. We are the equivelant of a trailer on a dirt road with 20 choppers pulled up next to it, and a meth lab cooking on the porch. The "visitors" are aware, but prefer not to visit, just looking.
      If an alien race was capable of FTL travel, what possible intrest could we be, we would appear as organized as a termite nest, or ant mound to such beings, and they wouldn't recognize our sapience by their standards.

    2. "You need gravity to warp space and time" I believe what this guy is saying is you don't need anywhere near as much gravity (energy) as we thought before.

      As for whether absence of evidence is evidence of absence, I can't really say. I'm kind of fond of the saying: "We could be one planet in a universe teaming with life, just waiting to be contacted. Or we could be all alone in the night; the only life that has developed in the entire universe. Either way, it's a pretty sobering thought".

    3. 'If an alien race was capable of FTL travel, what possible interest could we be; we would appear as organized as a termite nest.'
      And yet, I'm sure hundreds of our scientists have studied termites. Do you really believe that if there really are intelligent aliens out there, they're not curious beings like we are?
      That’s really not a good argument.
      'We could be one planet in a universe teaming with life, just waiting to be contacted. Or we could be all alone in the night; the only life that has developed in the entire universe. Either way, it's a pretty sobering thought.'
      Sol is a relatively old third generation star (one of the first) and only third generation stars contain the level of heavier elements necessary to form life. Books have been written on how unique our planet, our star, and our galaxy are. The singular evidence of how long it took intelligent life to develop on the Earth (4.3 billion years) suggests that intelligent life may be relatively rare and we may be one of the first to evolve.

  2. Steve - not if they were looking for intelligent life. If they weren't convinced that there was no intelligent life on Earth in 2008, they will certain know it in 2012.

  3. Replies
    1. Toward his later years, Feynman said “There are 10^11 stars in the galaxy. That used to be a huge number. But it’s only a hundred billion. It’s less than the national deficit! We used to call them astronomical numbers. Now we should call them economical numbers.” (source)

      Even worse, Feynman has been gone a long time!

  4. Who cares if we appear "organized" or "intelligent" to f*ing Aliens??
    That's like worrying about what the French think. Same problem, but not our job! Besides, our highway choppers are f*%ng badass and we're gonna sell some shit to the Alien's daughters and make an inter-stellar ton of money.
    What if Freedom and Liberty is some scary "meth" to blinker-minded Aliens who are all robotic-insectoid plasma-goo Liberals, all bent on thinking alike - then they actually NEED us out there, so let's go kick some ass!

  5. I was refering to the fact that the aforementioned trailer would not be the place to stop and ask for directions, and a lift to the gas station. Just like we would study a new style ant nest, any race already in possesion of FTL travel would veiw us as sorta interesting, but not all that exciting on a cosmic level. The technology and culture needed for FTL would indicate that we appear more like tailess monkeys rather than the dominate lifeforce, and if they tuned into US tv it probabily wouldn't make as much sense to them as BBC does over here. I care less about the french opinion than the ET opinion because the ET might actually have an original thought that didn't involve surrender, and beg for help.

  6. ‘What if Freedom and Liberty is some scary "meth" to blinker-minded Aliens who are all robotic-insectoid plasma-goo Liberals’

    I’m pretty sure that without freedom they would have run out of money long before they started to explore the galaxy (actually my main theory is that we haven’t met aliens yet because of economics.)

    ‘who wants to meet meat?’

    I’m thinking he wrote the entire story just so he could use this one line!

  7. When does the hive-mind or Borg need freedom or even money? Apologies for the rant, I guess I'm tired of the Humans = Dumb Aliens = Smart notion, or that we need to *study* everything first before making a move - observe (smartly!) perhaps.

    Maybe the only Aliens interested in visiting us Savages are the Missionaries. And what they actually need is to learn from us - and a position other than "Missionary Style."

  8. Early missionaries did a pretty bad number all across South, and Central America, conversion by the sword was not unheard of, and. I really do not think that any race with FTL would be much kinder than that. How would we convince them that we could be equals, rather than perfoming apes like Jane Goodal studied, or match an unknown standard that they use as their equivelant of an IQ test? I hope this hypothetical race doesn't like I love Lucy reruns, and decides to let us simmer for a couple more centuries. Although on the other hand nothing would bring us closer than a good old fashioned alien invasion, not overwhelming just us VS the bugs, and they don't get special super top secret toys. That might actually accomplish global peace, but I doubt it.

  9. Sigh....because without money, they wouldn't be able to afford to visit us....sigh...
    The hive-mind is a fantasy of Sci Fi writers; it can't exist in reality. That's why humans not termites run the world. Termites, individual or collective, DO NOT THINK!
    The most probable reason why no one has come here and why we will never leave Sol's gravity well is well…like I said…economics...
    Capitalism has no reason; socialism has not the resources.