The ‘Warpship’ as envisioned by advanced propulsion expert Richard Obousy. Is this the faster-than-light spaceship Star Wars fans are looking for? Credit: Richard Obousy Consulting and Alex Szames Antigravite.
The hyperdrive, a firm sci-fi favorite mode of transportation for zipping around the galaxy, is a propulsion technology that NASA should be researching, according to hardcore sci-fi fans who attended the Star Wars Celebration V convention in Florida last week.
To put it bluntly, current space travel technologies can appear boring. When we’re used to seeing spaceships on TV carrying our space exploring heroes from one star system to another (or even one galaxy to another), the fact that 21st Century humans can’t even leave low-Earth orbit seems terribly pedestrian.
In fact, it is this reasoning that caused astronaut legend Buzz Aldin to come forward in 2008, accusing science fiction dreams of killing enthusiasm for spaceflight science reality.
Actually, having lofty expectations for NASA is no bad thing.
“I believe ‘Star Wars’ and NASA have a lot in common,” said Joseph Tellado, a logistics manager for the International Space Station, in response to the Star Wars fans. “We’re looking to the future. NASA is like the first stepping stone to ultimately get to that ‘Star Wars’ level.”
But the reality of just visiting one of our nearest planetary neighbors makes for painful reading. Even if we were to mount an interplanetary trip to Mars, using current technology to do so could take months, a restriction that puts a serious limit on our space exploration hopes.
So, to quote another sci-fi favorite, shouldn’t we be boldly going where no man has gone before in an effort to mitigate our star trekking woes? Or are these Star Wars fans asking a bit much of NASA?
“I don’t think it’s too much of Star Wars fans to ask NASA to research exotic propulsion,” advanced propulsion expert Richard Obousy told Discovery News. “However, I do think it’s far too high an expectation that NASA will deliver any kind of faster-than-light ‘hyperdrive’ in the foreseeable future.”
Obousy recently coauthored a paper when he was working at Baylor University, Texas, detailing how a warp drive could be used to propel a spacecraft (or “Warpship”) faster than the speed of light without breaking the laws of physics.
“There are currently two schemes that, within the known laws of physics, allow for superluminal (faster-than-light) propulsion,” he said. “These are 1) the wormhole and 2) the warp drive. Both involve the manipulation of the fabric of the spacetime continuum, and both require prodigious amounts of energy and an exotic form of energy called ‘negative energy.’”
What’s more, NASA has already spent a lot of time investigating the feasibility of these methods of FTL (faster-than-light) travel.
As pointed out by Obousy, it was the U.S. space agency that researched 8 different approaches to FTL travel — producing 16 peer-reviewed papers — during a program called “Breakthrough Propulsion Physics” (BPP) from 1996 to 2002. It was this study that identified wormholes (a.k.a. “Einstein-Rosen bridges”) and warp drives as two of the most “feasible” modes of superluminal travel.
Although exciting, there is a huge caveat that comes with any research that explores the limits of our understanding of physics.
“Warp drives are extremely speculative at this stage, and it would be irresponsible of me to suggest that a warp drive could ever be built,” Obousy added.
“What does seem true, however, is that warp drives are allowed to exist within the known laws of physics, and can therefore be explored and investigated in a rigorous and scientific manner.”
The warp drive is a familiar technology in the Star Trek universe, but we’re talking about NASA building a hyperdrive — are they the same thing? After all, I don’t recall the Millennium Falcon having a warp drive — it has a Isu-Sim SSP05 hyperdrive generator installed (in case you were wondering).
For simplicity’s sake, we’ll assume the Star Wars hyperdrive is similar to Obousy’s warp drive (they do the same thing, i.e., go faster than the speed of light).
“The Star Wars movies go into very little technical detail regarding the functionality of their hyperdrives; however, it’s clear that the hyperdrive operates at FTL speeds, since the spacecraft are able to jump from one star system to another in a very short amount of time,” said Obousy.
“Since the travel time is fast, but not instantaneous (as it would be in the case of a wormhole), I think that it’s safe to hypothesize that the hyperdrive is, in fact, a warp drive — which involves a local manipulation of spacetime to create the superluminal propulsion.”
As previously discussed on Discovery News, Obousy’s Warpship assumes the Universe is composed of many dimensions and some of these dimensions can be manipulated using “dark energy” — an energy that is theorized to pervade all space, explaining the observed accelerated expansion of the Cosmos.
Unfortunately, there is little continued research into this fascinating area of work, so the Star Wars fans call for further investigation isn’t that misplaced after all.
“Both warp drive and wormhole research are “cottage industries” — that is, for the most part, physicists have to study these in their spare time, outside of their regular academic and research duties,” Obousy concludes. “Currently, there are no funded projects in either industry or academia that support this research.”
“However, as was demonstrated by the BPP, one needs only an incredibly modest budget to create a fruitful and inspiring research program.”
Fascinated by the science behind the warp drive, dark energy and manipulating space-time? Watch “Interstellar Journey,” a series of ten short (non-technical) videos, hosted by Richard Obousy.