How Is Warp Drive Supposed To Work In The Star Trek Universe And In Reality If We Could Ever Build One?

For Star Trek, warp drive is the solution to all of the writer’s problems. As a plot device, warp drive allows for rapid interstellar travel and the interaction of characters and species that would otherwise never meet. It also makes it possible to neatly wrap up each episode and move on to the next one. But how does warp drive in Star Trek compare to any warp drive we might actually be able to build?

Star Trek Jargon and Warp Drive

There are many remarkable aspects to the Star Trek phenomenon, not the least of which is its creator’s remarkable ability to apparently predict the future. From iPads and cell phones to handheld medical scanners, many of the things imagined for Star Trek in the 1960s became a reality in our modern lives.

One thing we haven’t actually seen yet though is warp drive. As pointed out on Space.com, as originally envisioned the warp drive of the starship Enterprise used antimatter to supply the power necessary for its “warp coils” to relocate the ship faster than light – but presumably without actually passing the speed of light and violating causality.

Model of the Enterprise D with warp drive. [Image by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Like many other technologies used in Star Trek, the explanation for how the warp drive actually operates is usually shrouded in Star Trek technobabble that conceals the fact that – at its core – it doesn’t make any sense. As noted by Trek Movie, the character of Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation was renowned for his ability to produce such nonsensical Star Trek technical verbiage whenever the situation called for it.

In much of the Star Trek canon – particularly in the novels – the warp drive is described as operating on the principle of moving space in and around the ship faster than light, rather than moving mass itself through space faster than light.

In science-fiction storytelling, this provides a convenient way of ignoring the speed of light limit established by Einstein. It also avoids any annoying time dilation effects caused by traveling close to the speed of light.

Warp Drive in the Real World

For decades, physicists assured us that the warp drive of Star Trek science fiction was just that – fiction. But by the 1990s and early 2000’s, a handful of scientists had begun to wonder if this was entirely true.

Among the first of these was Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre, who in 1994 suggested what came to be known as the Alcubierre drive – although it was essentially Gene Roddenberry’s warp drive. In his own solution to Einstein’s equations, Alcubierre suggested that a warp drive might be possible if negative energy could be provided.

One problem with this approach was that it required a type of energy that does not exist and that many scientists do not believe can ever exist. Alcubierre himself felt that the negative energy requirement could be met through what is known as the Casimir effect.

At the same time, this warp drive would also require such a vast amount of energy that the concept was essentially impossible for entirely practical reasons. And there is where it stood for more than a decade until Harold White and NASA’s Eagleworks took up the challenge of testing whether something like this might actually be possible.

In 2012, they used an interferometer to try to test whether such spatial distortions could be generated. And by 2013, they claimed to have created a detectable warp field inside a vacuum for almost 20 seconds.

According to White, the power levels necessary for creating this warp effect are far lower than Miguel Alcubierre originally calculated. White suggests that by varying the shape of the field – and of the torus that generates it – it’s possible to get the same effect using far less energy.

The results of this warp drive experiment are hotly disputed by scientists around the world. Miguel Alcubierre himself argues that the experimental results are questionable and that a warp drive might not be possible for centuries – if ever. Of course, if it is possible human society would be changed in a way it hasn’t experienced since the Age of Exploration.

[Featured Image by Haynes Publishing via Getty Images]