Kirk, Einstein, and Obsolescing Wormholes: Making Warp Drive a Reality

Alison K. Lanier

So often we see technology making its debut in the shadow of science fiction precedents. However, NASA’s latest media darling is, to say the least, not subtle in making its ties to legendary sci-fi inspiration. NASA’s Harold White hinted two years ago that a warp drive was possible; now he and a graphic designer, who has ties to “Star Trek,” released an image of the ship that would potentially use the said faster-than-light travel.

Nvate faster-than-light travel Mark Rademaker warp drive

Credit: Mark Rademaker

This large-scale fan endeavor rises quite literally above and beyond a kid in his basement building his own set of Wolverine claws. No, this is a bigger kid playing around in a bigger basement, with a bigger budget, and a dream ripped straight out of “Star Trek” canon.

More Science, Less Fiction

It has been two years since Time announced that NASA was “actually working”—with no shortage of tongue-in-cheek geek excitement—on a warp drive. Yes, a warp drive that is just like the one that propels the USS Enterprise where no one has gone before. In real-science terms, the warp drive propels objects at faster than the speed of light, allowing all kinds of useful things, like interstellar space travel.

As Time pointed out, traveling faster than the speed of light is theoretically—or at least popularly held—to be impossible. I say not theoretically impossible because at present there is a theory in circulation that explains its way past this glaring obstacle. This is what Time calls a “radical-sounding hypothetical workaround.” In 1994, a paper in Classical and Quantum Gravity written by physicist Miguel Alcubierre laid a baseline. Time quoted from the abstract of his paper:

“… [it] is shown how, within the framework of general relativity and without the introduction of wormholes, it is possible to modify a space time in a way that allows a spaceship to travel with an arbitrarily large speed. By a purely local expansion of space time behind the spaceship and an opposite contraction in front of it, motion faster than the speed of light as seen by observers outside the disturbed region is possible. The resulting distortion is reminiscent of the ‘warp drive’ of science fiction.”

The theory relies on the creation of a “warp bubble,” which would manipulate space time around an object, expanding space behind a ship and thus propelling it forward. In essence: the faster-than-light travel is accomplished without the ship itself actually having to move.

The complexities and pitfalls of the potential project, as barriers were being weighed back in 2012, were obviously myriad. For example, the huge—huge on the scale of the mass-energy of Jupiter, according to Time—amount of energy required to actually get this process moving is by no means easy to generate.

From the Big Screen to the Drawing Board

According to the Washington Post, with an image captioned “Warp speed, Mr. Sulu,” recently published—get ready—a CGI design for a NASA space craft that looks ripped straight from a J.J. Abrams screen.

Harold White, the NASA brain who figured so prominently in Time’s hopeful musings about overcoming the energy problem, in collaboration with Mark Rademaker, whipped up this beauty of a nerd dream come true. The front of the ship, in shiny futuristic white, complete with Abrams lens-flares, looks unmistakably like the curve of a certain disc-shaped spaceship. In the image, the vessel appears to be moving through a “space yard,” something akin to the hula-hoop-like refueling station in “Firefly.”

Now here’s the punchline: the ship is called the IXS Enterprise. The Alcubierre Drive and the image of NASA’s Enterprise, as io9 so aptly pointed out, is startlingly similar to, say, the Vulcan command ships of CBS’s legendary series.

Stepping Stones and Theories

How is all this possible? The science, vastly over-simplified into the bubble-behind-the-ship-pushes-ship description, still faces the same energy issues that Alcubierre’s original suppositions indicated. However, White, keeping an open mind, as io9 described, was running numbers “out of curiosity” on a sensitivity test leading up to the “100 Year Starship” project.

“My early results suggested I had discovered something that was in the math all along. I suddenly realized that if you made the thickness of the negative vacuum energy ring larger—like shifting from a belt shape to a donut shape—and oscillate the warp bubble, you can greatly reduce the energy required—perhaps making the idea plausible,” White said to io9.

The result: a ship with a disc-shaped nose called the Enterprise that reduces interstellar space travel from centuries to weeks.

These are still “preliminary efforts,” as io9 warns, still very much “in science mode.” Nobody is going to go zooming off to the final frontier in a CGI ship any more than they would in the green- screen of a “Star Trek” set.

However, the few first steps are not as shaky nor as far-fetched as the movie-image design might imply. This potential revolution in space travel, while approached cautiously by White, is not only a possibility but apparently—futuristically—feasible.

“We wanted to have a decent image of a theory conforming Warp ship to motivate young people to pursue a STEM career,” Rademaker said to the Washington Post. Personally, I think a NASA-sponsored Enterprise is as good a motivator as any.

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