I have never been much of a Trekkie. Until the new Star Trek film came out a couple years ago, Captain Kirk's adventures aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise failed to capture my interest.
But that didn't prevent a moment of giddiness the other day when I read that NASA was working on a “warp drive,” like the one dreamed up by Star Trek.
Harold White, an engineer at NASA, is leading the small team tasked with finding if the warp drive concept developed in the 90s by physicist Miguel Alcubierre could be plausible. Alcubierre suggested that faster-than-light travel could theoretically be achieved, utilizing a space craft surrounded by a massive ring that would utilize negative energy to contract space-time in front of the ship, while expanding it behind, propelling the craft forward in a “warp bubble.”
Alcubierre's concept was purely theoretical though. While he suggest that the universe might allow for faster-than-light travel by warping space-time, he did not believe that humans would be able to overcome the difficulties that developing a warp drive would present. The main hang-up was the enormous amount of energy required to actually influence space-time so dramatically. Alcubierre thought the energy required would be about equal to the mass-energy of Jupiter, so the idea of putting the concept into practice was quite reasonably dismissed.
However, White thinks he may have found a way to make it work. He believes that by tweaking Alcubierre's design, he can greatly reduce the energy requirement.
“My early results suggested I had discovered something that was in the math all along,” he told io9.com. “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 says that by using this design, the mass-energy required would shrink from about the size of Jupiter to the size of the Voyager 1 space craft. According to Discovery.com, he has also suggested a possible way to create the exotic-matter needed to fuel it, using “q-thrusters.”
These electric “q-thrusters” work as a submarine does underwater, except they're in the vacuum of space, White told the crowd at the Starship Congress on Aug. 17. The spacecraft is theoretically propelled through space by stirring up the cosmic soup, causing quantum-level perturbations. The resulting thrust is similar to that created by a submersible moving through water.
Of course, White has plenty of detractors. There are good reasons for that. Physicist Matthew R. Francis dismissed White's claims in Slate as “science-fiction,” saying, “From what physicists have learned about the universe and its contents, White's warp drive can't work, period.” Francis also pointed out that White has not published his findings yet, so they haven’t been subjected to the scrutiny of peer-review.
As one of my favorite writers, Christopher Hitchens, was fond of saying, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Clearly the evidence is lacking right now, so White's claim's should be viewed with a high-degree of skepticism. In the long run, I don't know if I would bet against NASA but, for now, it looks like we will just have to wait and see.