This year marks the 50th anniversary of the hit sci-fi show Star Trek, and along with the many celebrations comes a renewed interest in the technology used aboard the USS Enterprise, including its famous warp drive.
The warp drive engine aboard the Enterprise allowed the starship to cover vast distances quickly without any of the annoying side effects normally associated with traveling faster than light.
It’s 50 years later and scientists are beginning to discover possibly habitable worlds circling nearby stars leading Star Trek fans everywhere to ask: is it possible to create a warp drive engine?
The fictional idea of warp drive was first introduced to the literary world in 1931 with the John Campbell novel Islands in Space. Later, it became a staple in the Star Trek universe when the original series debuted in 1966 where it was first referred to as a hyperdrive/time warp engine.
The warp drive concept involves extending a bubble around the spacecraft that exists in normal time; the bubble moves through space faster than light, while anything inside remains untouched by the ravages of time.
NASA insists this technology doesn’t exist because Einstein’s Theory of Relativity says nothing heavier than a photon can travel at the speed of light, but they’ve established the Eagleworks lab in Houston to explore other fantastical means of travel.
NASA engineer and physicist Harold White collaborated with designer Mark Rademaker to engineer this CGI concept ship with a warp drive that would allow space explorers to travel to distant planets in weeks, not centuries.
The concept warp drive ship is an ingenious re-imagining of an Alcubierre Drive and exploits a loophole in Einstein’s theory of relativity, White told io9.
“Essentially, the empty space behind a starship would be made to expand rapidly, pushing the craft in a forward direction — passengers would perceive it as movement despite the complete lack of acceleration.”
White’s concept required large rings around the spacecraft, which help reduce the amount of energy needed to create a bubble in space time in front of and behind the ship, he told io9.
“Remember, nothing locally exceeds the speed of light, but space can expand and contract at any speed.”
Another warp drive theory involves the rather controversial “impossible” EmDrive, that is capable of generating thrust without fuel and could theoretically carry astronauts to Mars in weeks instead of years.
The concept was first imagined by Roger Shawyer in 1999. It was quickly ridiculed by mainstream scientists who accused the engine of breaking the law of conservation of momentum; in order for a rocket to go forward there must be exhaust going backward.
NASA assigned scientists at the Eagleworks lab to study the idea. They’ve published a peer review paper on the concept and other people are launching cubesats, tiny satellites, into orbit to test the theory, Shawyer told the International Business Times.
“People think it’s black magic or something, but it’s not. Any physicist worth his salt should understand how it works.”
Slower Than Light
Scientists have been searching for alien life for decades and the discovery of possible Earth-like planets around nearby stars has fueled the quest to become a multi-planet species, but we may not need warp drive to reach the stars.
In the late 1950s and early 60s, the U.S. government funded Project Orion, a classified program that essentially involved spacecraft riding the wave from a nuclear explosion to approach 5 percent the speed of light.
There’s also the possibility of a generation starship for explorers who want to get there, but aren’t concerned about how fast they go. Effectively a traveling space colony, a generation ship would commit future generations to living their out lives in the space between stars.
Another idea that has grabbed the attention of sci-fi writers is sleeper ships where the passengers are put into suspended animation for the duration of the journey between planets. That’s the concept of the latest Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt movie, Passengers.
What do you think about humanity’s quest to colonize the stars?
[Featured Image by Olga Popova/Shutterstock]