Some scientists at NASA believe they may have the key to creating an amazing warp drive powering interstellar starships of the future and paving the way for a Federation and future Captain Kirks.
A pipe dream?
Mae Jemison, a former astronaut, doesn't think so, and neither do some physicists at NASA who have grabbed onto the theoretical work of physicist Miguel Alcubierre's idea that space-time expansion can be artificially created allowing faster-than-light travel. The mechanics of it appear remarkably similar to the warp drive propulsion system envisioned by Gene Roddenberry for Star Trek and later used in the hit Star Wars films.
The idea borrows from the expansion of space known as the "inflation theory" and from the hypothesis that after the initial explosion of the Big Bang that space-time actually expanded outward faster than the speed of light.
Alcubierre's warp speed hypothesis uses those two theories as the foundation to create a warp capable of propelling a spacecraft faster than light by simply circumventing light and the natural physics of the universe.
According to the mechanics of the warp drive field envisioned, a massive negative energy field must be created like a bubble around a spaceship. Whether such a thing exists or can be created is still the subject of intense debate. Quantum physics supports the math for negative energy, so while it may not be possible in so-called classical physics, the exotic world of the sub-atomic waves and particles supports the concept.
To push the ship and warp it through normal space would require a very exotic field and the ability to direct the artificial space-time bubble that's slipping through normal space.
NASA explains it this way: "The Alcubierre warp drive is like one of those moving sidewalks. Although there may be a limit to how fast one can walk across the floor (analogous to the light speed limit), what about if you are on a moving section of floor that moves faster than you can walk (analogous to a moving section of space-time)? In the case of the Alcubierre warp drive, this moving section of space-time is created by expanding space-time behind the ship (analogous to where the sidewalk emerges from underneath the floor), and by contracting space-time in front of the ship (analogous to where the sidewalk goes back into the floor)."
Assuming it can be achieved, NASA argues that the space warping travelers are then faced with the classic time-travel paradoxes that haunt the concepts of traveling through space using wormholes. Yet Alcubierre disputes that and argues that space-time would basically remain unchanged and no time disparity would exist.
“Warp Field Mechanics 102”
During September 2012, hundreds of space promoters including scientists and far-thinking engineers, came together in Houston, Texas for the second annual "100 Year Starship Symposium" meeting. The hallways of the Hyatt Regency echoed with the excited conversations of men and women able to see star travel as not only possible but within humanty's grasp.
Mae Jemison headed the meeting and leads the project that is funded by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) a branch of the Pentagon.
Obviously some in the military see the implications of warp drive and the ability to patrol the solar system with ease while exploring other star systems with voyages taking only days, weeks or months, depending on the light years traveled.
According to the project's mission statement, the "100 Year Starship" has the determined goal to “make the capability of human travel beyond our solar system to another star a reality within the next 100 years.”
Dr. Harold “Sonny” White of NASA, one of the leading visionaries of warp drive theory and engineering applications, presented “Warp Field Mechanics 102,” an overview on the advantages, theory and applications of a workable warp drive based upon Alcubierre's warp speed hypothesis presented in "The warp drive: hyper-fast travel within general relativity."
So convinced that warp drive is feasible, White is working hard to bring it into fruition in his NASA lab dubbed "Eagleworks."
Much less energy needed
White has discovered a way to create a negative energy bubble using much less energy than was previously thought needed. Alcubierre's calculations assumed a mass-energy source the size of Jupiter would be necessary.
"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," Space.com reports. "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."
And that engineering sleight-of-hand changes everything.
"Perhaps a Star Trek experience within our lifetime is not such a remote possibility," White says in his personal blog.