Think back on every major sci-fi work from your life. What’s the single event that propelled mankind, and space travel, into the future? Anybody who grew up with Star Trek knows that it’s the warp drive, or faster-than-light travel. Modern sci-fi fans only have to look to Mass Effect for a contemporary take on the importance of warp drives.
Unfortunately, warp drives aren’t real and they probably will never be real in our lifetimes. It’s a realistic, if somewhat pessimistic, take on the current state of space travel. NASA has never been one to let realism get in the way of their dreams and the agency now says that warp drives may be a possibility in the future.
The exciting part is that a warp drive concept is already out there. Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre proposed the first warp drive in 1994, but found that the energy costs associated with such a device would be problematic. In fact, scientists peg the energy required to be about equal to the mass-energy of Jupiter.
So how do scientists propose we overcome this gas giant sized energy problem? Just change the shape of the spaceship. The original warp drive was envisioned as a small ship that’s encircled by a flat ring that would warp space-time around the ship. The new model, proposed by Harold White of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, would see the flat ring molded into the shape of a rounded donut. The energy required by the transformation would be significantly less. White calculates that they would only need the energy-mass of the relatively tiny Voyager 1 space probe.
I don’t think I need to tell you how massive of a discovery this is. If proven true, White’s research could pave the way for faster-than-light space travel. We could make trips to Mars in mere minutes. Human-led research teams could break out of our solar system and explore potentially habitable planets in other galaxies. The ramifications are huge and I couldn’t be more excited.
For now, the researchers at Johnson Space Center are trying to create tiny warps in space-time. It would at least prove White’s theory that shape can make all the difference. Now we can start thinking about all the problems that traveling faster-than-light can cause.