NASA’s Plans For A ‘Star Trek’ Style Warp Drive Inch Closer To Reality

Most of us learn in high school science class that the speed of light functions as a “speed limit” to the universe. Most of us can’t quite follow the math, but we’ve been told repeatedly by scientists and teachers that faster-than-light travel is a fantasy, despite what we’ve seen on shows like Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica. What if Star Trek had it right all along, though? What if there’s a way to warp space so that we can beat that speed limit without breaking it?

A real-life theoretical warp drive called the “Alcubierre Drive” might be the key to humanity unlocking travel to the stars. An article at I09 explains how it would work:

“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 speculates that such a drive could result in “speeds” that could take a spacecraft to Alpha Centauri in a mere two weeks — even though the system is 4.3 light-years away.”

This is a fine idea, and actually pretty close to the core concept used in Star Trek, but it does nothing to explain how this expansion of space would occur. What process would allow us to bend and fold reality while remaining (essentially) at rest? How would it take us from our home to planets that are orbiting stars light-years away?

Dr. Harold White has been working on that problem ever since he first read Miguel Alcubierre’s 1994 paper about the possibility of warp travel. Io9 also tells us that he has developed a mathematical demonstration that describes the generation of a “warp bubble” (a term familiar to Star Trek: The Next Generation fans), and that his most recent calculations would require far less energy to implement than anyone previously thought.

The key step now is developing a physical proof — a working model drive or (to borrow from Star Trek again) a “warp core” that demonstrates that the math isn’t just consistent, it actually holds true in the physical world. The working model would not need to be a fleet of starships or even a fully functional warp drive. It would only need to be capable of producing a “warp bubble” of the kind Dr. White describes. It’s a long way from this kind of model to Star Trek, but the model would at least prove that warp drive is possible.

It would be easy to write Dr. White’s theories off as one more physics trick that winds up being true but impractical, like invisibility cloaks, except for one thing: Dr. White is currently the “Advanced Propulsion Lead Theme for the NASA Engineering Directorate,” which means that his job is to develop and evaluate these “Star Trek” systems for application.

While the real warp drive’s operation might not be exactly like the warp drives on Star Trek, Dr. White’s descriptions of the way that it would operate does sound a lot like the patter we’ve been hearing from Scotty and Geordi LaForge over the years. The Star Trek influence is only getting more obvious, too. This week, Mark Rademaker, a designer who has been collaborating with Dr. White, released a series of designs for a concept ship called the IXS Enterprise.

The Washington Post has an authorized gallery of his work in their article about the progress of the warp drive’s development. The shape of the saucer section and the cluster of four drive structures that look suspiciously like warp nacelles is unmistakable — although Star Trek fans will probably note that this ship is a little closer to a “Stargazer” than an “Enterprise,” in shape if not in spirit.

[Image via Flickr/Mark Rademaker]