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Warp Drive: Is it Really Possible?

December 15, 2008 on 11:28 am | In Physics, Q & A, relativity |

Ever since we realized that our Universe extended far beyond the extent of Planet Earth, mankind has longed to travel to distant planets, stars, or even other galaxies, perhaps going as far as the edge of the known Universe.

We’ve designed spacecrafts that, in theory, can travel these great distances. The problem with all of these designs is time dilation, or the fact that while you go off on your space journey, time passes much faster for everyone who stays back on Earth, so that if you wanted to go off and return, people on Earth would age tens, thousands, or even millions of years while you were gone on your journey.

Well, reader Howard Mauch writes in and wants to know whether warp drive is really possible. Warp drive is the idea that we can bend space so significantly in front of our spacecraft that we can travel forward great distances in short amounts of time, without suffering the effects of time dilation:

This was, of course, made famous by Star Trek. But is this at all physically feasible? The quick answer is no. Why not? Because although space can be curved, and we can theoretically connect two distant points to travel instantaneously between them, nothing can safely travel through them. Take a look at this picture, where it looks like you can safely travel from one side to another through this short-cut:

The big problem is that the curvature you see here represents a gravitational field. The more curved a piece of this diagram is, the stronger the gravitational field is. And the stronger the field is, the greater the forces are on you. In the diagram above, the forces are so strong they will not only crush you, they will tear individual atoms apart. The only solution? We need some way to create stable, flat spacetime inside of this curved area. Is this possible?

Well, it’s possible in electricity; you put an electrical conductor around your ship and you block all electric fields inside the conductor. Want to do the same thing for gravity? You’d need to put a gravitational conductor around your ship. No big deal, right? Except that there’s no such thing as a gravitational conductor, because there’s only one type of mass (positive), where there are two types of electric charge (positive and negative). So either invent something with a negative mass (which doesn’t exist) and build a gravitational conductor, or everything, even in theory, will be destroyed by the gravitational forces that would allow you to travel via warp drive.

NASA is more optimistic about this. I believe they are mistaken in their optimism, but who knows what new physics will be discovered, and what new possibilities will arise from them?

And if you need a bigger fix for your space reading needs, check out the latest Carnival of Space, where many interesting space delicacies await you!


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  1. interesting article sir

    but how about the effects on a time paradox once one is possible to make something like that?

    by the way, here some interesting question about the other topic sir

    Comment by Delirian — December 15, 2008 #

  2. If you could possibly figure out ‘quantum gravity’you might think of ‘new technology’ to manipulate the metric. My speculative example would be to generate the inflaton on a local level and feed it at the right balance. If the inflaton consists of a condensate of quantum black holes then the thermal photon would be what you would feed the inflaton in order to maintain the fields. The quantum black holes would not coalesce. Just my guess though.

    Comment by mark a. thomas — December 16, 2008 #

  3. There is no such thing as negative mass in our Universe — that we know of. However, we can assume that there is an alternate universe where negative mass does exist. Maybe a extremely powerful laser could burn a whole in space time and temporarily open up a rift this other universe and let negative mass bleed into our universe. Then, ride this bubble of negative mass down the worm whole.

    Comment by Josh Reiter — December 23, 2008 #

  4. All of these are nice ideas. The problem is, they’re completely speculative at best. There’s no evidence for any of this. Generating an inflaton locally and controlling it? Negative mass in an alternate Universe that we can access? Perhaps these things are not ruled out by the laws of physics, but there is no evidence that they’re plausible, either.

    Comment by ethan — December 23, 2008 #

  5. In theory this is not only very feasible it is probably the only way to travel faster than light. Dark matter has, for simplification, negative mass and dark matter has dark energy (anti-gravity) which curves space time in a fashion opposite of gravity. Think for a second you are on a big trampoline with a small toy car. In front of the car you push your finger down while you have a friend underneath you pushing up behind the car… what happens is the car moves forward. This applies here only instead of 2d its 4d. Speeds faster than light relative to observers as well as passengers is achievable because the of the steep space-time cliff that is essentially created. In fact space itself is likely increasing faster than light due to a very similar effect as I tried to describe here only on an infinitely vaster scale.

    Comment by evan — February 11, 2009 #

  6. The commenter that said there is no such thing as negative mass is incorrect. Negative mass is all around us where mass simply isn’t. It exists because it is a lack of existence if you will or an emptiness between sub atomic particles. Now we don’t notice any effect it has because as beings of matter in a planet which is in a star in a galaxy in a cluster ect… we are at the freaking nexus of matter. Go out in the middle of super deep space and you and your atoms will feel very alone. Out here you will witness everything that IS matter rushing away from you. Why? because just as gravity increases exponentially with increasing mass anti-gravity or dark energy will increase exponentially the greater the lack of mass is… Entropy is the guiding principal in the universe as dictated by dark energy and the universe wants to expand ever faster until every sup atomic particle is identical and equidistant from each other. But as dark energy inflates and dilutes the universe the few islands of matter and gravity will fight ever harder to stay together, such is the nature of gravity that at the last second every thing will either be tiny islands of super dense mass or massive infinite expanses of emptiness. When this point is reached the islands of near unimaginable infinite mass will reach a tipping point and come rushing into each other at speeds that could be described as instantaneous. Thus the big bang occurs again and the universe resets itself for another billion billion years of creation and destruction, of life and death.

    Comment by evan — February 11, 2009 #

  7. Evan,

    As far as we know, the evidence shows that dark energy does not increase as the mass density of the Universe drops. The dark energy density appears to be constant.

    That said, I don’t know where you got your information that negative mass or energy exists. All mass and energy that we know of, including dark matter and dark energy, is positive. You can have masses that are small (below the mean mass), but it’s still a positive mass.

    Your idea of the big bang occurring again and again like this has it’s roots in a scientific paper — look up “The Rejuvenated Universe” by Eric Gawaiser (spelling?) — but that theory doesn’t work, since it predicts a value for dark energy that conflicts with experiments.

    Comment by ethan — February 11, 2009 #


    Comment by paul — April 21, 2009 #

  9. dhFRNN

    Comment by Qzjmkyfd — July 14, 2009 #

  10. You also have to consider the possibility of what might happen to your body when you actually do travel at those speeds. If you do have all of that Star Trek-class fancy graveton displacers and force fields, think of what space itself might do to you. remember that episode of Star Trek Voyager when Leutenant Tom Paris took the shuttlecraft Cochryn and made it to warp 10? What happened? His body was evolving faster than anyone else’s, because he was traveling at such speeds. The same effect may not happen to us, but i do think that several early versions of the warp drive (if they will be invented) will somehow affect us chronologically. Also, think about the radiation that it emits. Like alot of engineers from start trek said, “Being next to this thing cuts your life in half.”. I am positive that long term use of the warp drive will affect us somehow chronologically, because traveling at warp speeds is traveling faster than light, meaning we have a extremely high amount of kinetic energy while traveling to space. If you drop a book from the celing to the floor, the kinetic energy in the book drives the book down to the floor, and that takes time. Since the known fastest way to travel in space is the speed of light, i may or may not be correct about this, but i do think that since you are traveling faster than light with such a level of kinetic energy, there is some way you are manipulating the chronological time period in the field around you. Like early prototypes have to be patched up to work out the bugs, not all of the early warp drives that they say will be made in 2063 and on will be completely safe. Imagine, leaving earth’s orbit using ION propulsion, and then activating the warp drive. You look at the calendar, and see it is January, 12, 2064. You go to warp, and then come back, only to be surrounded by a swarm of Starfleet ships telling you where to go and where not to go. You look at the calendar which constantly syncs with the data server back on earth which is on your screen, only to see that you ended up 300 years from where you started.

    Comment by Mark — January 26, 2010 #

  11. Sir (if you were able to actually get through a black hole), if you were to bend time, space and matter in such a peculiar way, would you be able to travel a speed currently unknown to human kind? Also what exactly is red matter? Does it exist? does it give any more options to speeds unknown? I think if the capacity of a supernova could be withheld and kept there for even a short period of time and then released in one direction, That would be able to produce speeds not faster than light itself but close to it. If it it was possible to bend a black hole inside out, would the then negative pressure be enough to sustain human life inside? Is there a way to separate two atoms, and then join them again? If there is, that could not only be used for the invention of teleporters, but also in space, when traveling extremely long distances. There could be the same force as a black hole (just with less power), because when you enter a black hole, your atoms stretch and stretch until they eventually disperse, but instead your atoms can stretch, just not to the capacity of a black hole.

    Comment by different — May 13, 2010 #


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