The idea of traveling to another star has captivated scientists and science fiction writers for decades, but the vast interstellar distances is a huge barrier to our star-trekking dreams. For interstellar travel to become a reality, we realistically need to develop a propulsion technology that can travel faster than the speed of light.
Now one NASA physicist has turned some very preliminary space-time warping experiments into a design of starship that would, quite frankly, make Captain Jean-Luc Picard drool.
Harold "Sonny" White, Advanced Propulsion Team Lead at NASA's Johnson Space Center, Texas, wowed the world in 2012 when he announced a "warpship" concept that could, hypothetically, be more energy efficient than starship designs that have come before it. Now, White has teamed up with artist Mark Rademaker to turn his warpship concept, that is based on very real physics, into a beautifully-rendered model.
"The IXS Enterprise concept has been out for a while now, I used it in the Starship Congress talk (in 2013)," White told Discovery News via email, "The artistic rendering ... is just part of an informal education outreach thread that went into the 'Star Trek Ships of the Line 2014' calendar."
White is currently working with a lab-based interferometer at Johnson that could potentially detect microscopic warps. The technology is in the very early stages -- and, by White's own admission, may not even lead to the development of anything as sophisticated as a warp drive -- but this warpship design incorporates basic warp drive physics and builds it around a concept for a faster-than-light speed starship.
The idea of a starship powered by a warp drive isn't new. Not only popularized by science fiction shows like "Star Trek," the physics behind warp drive propulsion was famously investigated in 1994 by Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre. Alas, the energy required to make the Alcubierre drive function would be unimaginatively huge -- the approximate rest-mass energy of the entire Universe.
In 2009, advanced propulsion expert Richard Obousy applied modern physics to the warp drive problem. Through the manipulation of extra-dimensions in space-time by utilizing dark energy, the Obousy warp drive would use far less energy -- the approximate rest-mass energy of Jupiter. Still, the energy requirements were prohibitively big, but at least it was an improvement.
Then, in 2012, White announced his experiments into warping space-time and a tweak to the warpship concept. By turning the warpship's ring into a "rounded doughnut" and oscillating the warp field, White's theoretical warpship would be more efficient and run off the equivalent mass-energy as the Voyager 1 spacecraft. Once again, that's still a lot of energy, but it's a huge step in the right direction.
Through the development of White's "rounded doughnut" idea, the artistic rendering of IXS Enterprise was born.
"Mark Rademaker did the art work with some consultation from Mike Okuda, and I just provided some helpful inputs on how to update the Matthew Jefferies concept to more accurately reflect the recent physics findings based on my analysis work supporting the talks I gave at the 100 Year Starship, Starship Congress, and numerous other engagements," said White.
Mike Okuda is a graphic designer known for his work on Star Trek movies, TV shows and video games and Walter M. "Matt" Jefferies designed the original Star Trek Starship Enterprise. In the 1960's, Jefferies, who died in 2003, also had the amazing foresight to design a starship concept that also incorporated a ring doughnut into the shape.
"I think it's interesting that Matt apparently conceived of the rings as being part of the propulsion system, not (as I assumed at first glance) as a centrifuge," Okuda told Discovery News. "He told us that it was his favorite of his early concepts for the Enterprise."
The rings that are included in the IXS Enterprise design would support a "warp bubble" that would encapsulate the starship's hull. In theory, the warp bubble would contain a stationary volume of space that can travel arbitrarily fast through space-time (it is, therefore, the space-time bubble, not the spaceship, that travels faster than the speed of light).
Of course, there are many technological, engineering and physics challenges that aren't accounted for in this design, but it does provide a glimpse of a starship of the future that applies physics that we are beginning to get to grips with today.
"We designed this mainly to interest people in space travel; the research might or might not lead to a breakthrough in FTL (faster-than-light) propulsion, but always will return valuable data," Rademaker told CNET.com. "I think it's decades and many many evolutions away from a working prototype. To see it fly in this exact form is highly unlikely."
We don't know what transformative technological developments lay ahead of us, but if these renderings of a warpship using current ideas from our understanding of physics inspires the next generation of space scientists, interstellar travel may be closer than we think.