The scoop: Warp drive propulsion may be a sci-fi favorite for the USS Enterprise to speed around the cosmos, but can the technology ever become a reality? According to Dr. Richard Obousy, the answer is 'yes' — assuming mankind finds a way to harness 'dark energy,' helping our futuristic interstellar spacecraft surf a spacetime wave faster than the speed of light.
ioneill80: Hi Richard! I now have a cup of tea :)
ioneill80: Right, I suppose my first question would be: what inspired you to study warp drives?
robousy: Good question. I am a huge sci-fi fan and I've always been fascinated by space exploration. My first degree was physics with space technology and I became profoundly aware of the limitations of rocket technology when it comes to space exploration.
I think that my intellectual interests really began to focus on theoretical and particle physics and by the end of my PhD research — I began to see some tantalizing areas to merge my interest of space exploration and theoretical physics.
ioneill80: Sounds like my experience — sci-fi inspired me to delve into the physics too.
Was your PhD actually focused on warp drive propulsion?
robousy: I was studying something different, but I saw possible extensions of the research into exotic propulsion.
ioneill80: What extensions were they?
robousy: Well, my research was focused on understanding an exotic form of energy called 'dark energy'. This energy is manifestly related to the accelerated expansion of spacetime. To me there were immediate links to exotic propulsion and I believe that the first steps to controlling a mechanism are to understand that mechanism.
ioneill80: How can spacetime expansion help us get around space? Space is big, is this form of space travel restricted by the speed of light?
robousy: Well that's the exciting thing. Objects moving through space are restricted by the speed of light. That's well understood.
However, there are two 'loopholes' to Einstein's famous speed limit. One was proposed by Einstein himself! It's called the Einstein-Rosen Bridge, or more popularly a 'wormhole.'
And the other is the 'warp drive.'
ioneill80: Now we're talking! Exactly what I wanted to get onto next. How does that work?
robousy: The idea is as follows:
One essentially contracts space itself in front of a spacecraft, and expands space behind.
Because spacetime is not limited by the speed of light restriction, this provides a tantalizing mechanism to zip through space at faster than light speeds!
ioneill80: Wow! So it's a "simple" matter of manipulating space-time... that's where the dark energy helps, right?
robousy: Yes exactly. Dark energy reacts with spacetime in a way that causes it to expand. So, theoretically, if one could harness dark energy then one would be one step closer to a 'warp drive' technology.
ioneill80: You're kinda trapping a volume of "normal" space around a hypothetical spaceship, is that right? Squeezed space at the front, stretched space out the back?
robousy: You can apply the analogy of a surfer riding a wave of spacetime. That's a popular analogy.
ioneill80: I like that idea, "space-time surfing" — sounds like a potential futuristic sport!
robousy: Haha. That would make for an interesting galactic Olympic games.
ioneill80: Okay, so if you did have a spaceship capable of surfing on space-time, do you have any idea what kind of energy would be needed? How could all this warping be generated?
robousy: Well, some back of the envelope calculations I performed last year indicated approximately the mass energy contained within the planet Jupiter!
ioneill80: Yowch! Do you think a futuristic human race could do that? And would we actually need to vaporize Jupiter? I quite like that idea...
robousy: Well, hopefully not. I know we got rid of Pluto recently, but I'm quite attached to Jupiter. But seriously, it's a phenomenal amount of energy... yes.
The very early warp drive calculations indicated that one would need more mass energy than was available within the entire universe...that's TRILLIONS of Jupiters!
ioneill80: Suddenly the rest-mass energy of Jupiter seems like a good trade off!
robousy: Well yes, it's a trend. Later calculations indicated one would need about the mass energy contained within a typical galaxy. (About a trillion Jupiters.)
The problem has been downgraded from being down-right impossible, to just very, very, very difficult.
But I don't think anyone is talking seriously about dismantling Jupiter... it's just an analogy to give us some idea of the immensity of the problem.
ioneill80: So personally, do you see warp drive has real potential in the future?
robousy: I do.
I think it's worthy research if we ever want to become a truly space-faring civilization. But it's clearly not something that today's technology could achieve.
ioneill80: I agree, I think we need all the ideas we can. I'd hate the thought that mankind will be restricted to pottering around the Solar System. Warp drive could truly put humans on the cosmic map.
robousy: Certainly would.
ioneill80: Now, getting onto some practicalities: I recently read some research indicating that a space ship could be cooked by Hawking Radiation if the warp bubble travels faster than the speed of light. Did your research point to problems like this?
robousy: No — that's a more recent paper and not something we addressed. The objections are valid and need to be looked into, but it's certainly not the end of the road for warp drives. Objections are good, but usually we find smart ways of circumventing problems. Humans are good at that.
ioneill80: That's good — I thought warp drives would be a fantastic mode of transport for less-than light-speed travel too...
robousy: Sure, why not?
ioneill80: There is one question that's been on my mind, if our warp speed spaceship is traveling through space, would there be some kind of external effect on space-time? Like some kind of wave in the spaceship's wake?
robousy: Great question! Not one I could answer off the top of my head... but you do hit on something important.
ioneill80: I'd hate to think we might wipe out a planet or two...
robousy: Yes... I think that this technology would need thorough research before we began to apply it. It's very much in the theoretical stages at the moment, but if it ever looked like it was going to become practical I would very much like to see stringent research demonstrating the safety of this technology.
ioneill80: Hehe, I suspect there might be one or two planetary Health & Safety Officers sniffing around this piece of kit!
robousy: Yes, more than one or two! Most of them from Jupiter.
ioneill80: And rightly so! Now, going back to your PhD thesis, if you had to pick one discovery or finding, which would you consider to be the most important for the future development of warp drive technology?
robousy: Understanding the fundamental nature of dark energy. It's critical.
ioneill80: Well, it certainly sounds like dark energy is at the center of the whole thing. All going well, future dark energy-generating warp drives will be named The Obousy Drive!
robousy: Ha ha. I don't mind what they call it, as long as it gets invented. That's the important thing.
ioneill80: Absolutely, I'm going to be watching warp drive developments very closely — I'm just overjoyed that real physics has been applied to what is generally believed to be the stuff of sci-fi.
robousy: Yes. It's exciting. It's certainly still an open question and we have to remain pragmatic, but at least we've got some leads to follow now.
ioneill80: That is one very important thesis you completed.
robousy: Thanks. It was really just one chapter in the thesis. But the fact it's there is a great step forward I think.
ioneill80: Okay, so now for the future: are you still working on warp drive science or do you have other projects on the go?
robousy: I have a number of projects. I am putting some time into Warp Drives and making some great friends in the field. I'm also involved in Project Icarus, it's the next stage of the celebrated Project Daedalus of the British Interplanetary Society. I'm a core team member focusing on antimatter catalyzed fusion propulsion. I'm also running two businesses.
ioneill80: Wow, I'm overwhelmed that we have research groups working on this stuff – I think we are finally seeing the future of manned spaceflight!
robousy: Yes, it's a great time to be around!
ioneill80: I will have to chat to you about Project Icarus... nuclear pulse propulsion fascinated me with Project Daedalus, so I'll be excited to chat to you about Icarus!
robousy: Sure, I look forward to it.
ioneill80: Well thank you so much for speaking with me today Richard, I will let you get back to researching the future of interstellar propulsion technology!
robousy: Thanks for the opportunity to chat with you. I enjoyed it.
ioneill80: But one last thing: You mentioned you had two companies... you haven't already started building any of these advanced warp drive concepts have you?
robousy: Lol. Wait and see.
ioneill80: Oh, I'll be waiting... be sure to give me the call on launch day.
robousy: You'll be the first to know.
ioneill80: Wonderful. Thank you Richard, have a lovely night!
robousy: Thanks Ian, you too.
Article posted June 5, 2009.
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