The star ship Enterprise travels at warp speed in the new "Star Trek: Into Darkness" trailer.
J.J. Abrams' second Star Trek outing "Into Darkness" will hit movie screens this week, no doubt packed with excitement, explosions, mind-melding Vulcans and phasers set to stun. But there will also be the USS Enterprise traveling faster than the speed of light, carving up the vast expanses of interstellar space as if it was a short jaunt to the shops.
Over the years, warping spacetime has become more than a sci-fi notion, however. Star Trek may have popularized the mode of space transportation with Captain Kirk at the helm in the 1960s original series, but today, there are some serious efforts underway to establish whether spacetime can be warped in a useful way. Could warpships really be the future of zippy space travel? Or should the very notion of warp speed be resigned to the darkness of interstellar space?
So sit back, put away your tricorders, load you engines with dilithium crystals and enjoy some recent research that has gone into warp drive science.
No star streaks and psychadellic colors? Nope, at warp speeds, you'll see this blob.
On the deck of the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D (that's the Enterprise from Star Trek: The Next Generation, in case you didn't know), Captain Jean Luc Picard, juiced-up on endless cups of Earl Gray tea, gives the command: "ENGAGE!" Looking into the viewscreen, all the stars stretch into bright lines and -- kerpow! -- the Enterprise crew plow straight into a Romulan trap in the much-disputed neutral zone.
Now, about those streaky stars...
According to a group of graduate students at the University of Leicester, when traveling at warp speed, that's not what you'd see at all. The view would actually be a little... dull.
For starters, faster-than-light travel would blue-shift the light ahead out of the visible spectrum and into X-ray frequencies. Therefore, our eyes wouldn't see ANY light. In other words, the space ahead will be a dull, black void.
But, you know that cosmic microwave background radiation that pervades the entire universe? Well, that will be blueshifted from very long, invisible wavelengths into the visible region of the electromagnetic spectrum, creating a fuzzy glow ahead. Seems kind of poetic, actually.
"Who punched that hole in spacetime?
As much as we love to get wrapped up in the excitement and possibilities of warp speed, some physicists hypothesize there may be some nasty side effects. Like black holes. Yes, taking the warp shortcut to the Mutara Nebula to evade your nemesis Kahn may plop a singularity in your wake.
If you go too fast, will you get burned? Possibly, say warp speed critics.
Discussing the drawbacks of a hypothetical mode of transportation may seem silly, but it is necessary. And fun. Enter the hypothetical speed limit for hypothetically traveling at warp speed!
In theory, nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. But there is one huge caveat that can bend this fundamental rule. As theorized by Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre in 1994, if a warp ship could somehow manipulate spacetime in such a way as you create a bubble around the spaceship, it may be possible to control the bubble and make it zip around the universe at any speed imaginable, theoretically. The spaceship itself would be stationary -- it's the bubble that's moving.
But William Edelstein of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore recently objected to the feasibility of the warp bubble. Interstellar space contains gas, so as the bubble flies through spacetime, the gas particles will turn into a deadly death beam of high-energy death, vaporizing the spaceship inside the warp bubble, inflicting death on everyone inside, killing them, dead.
Zoom! Warp speed may not be so "impossible" after all.
But wait! Assuming we had the awesome ability to warp spacetime, cocoon ourselves in a spacetime bubble and propel ourselves around the Cosmos, it seems highly likely that we would have also found a way to mitigate the purely hypothetical hazards of traveling at warp speed.
Discussing the feasibility of superluminal speeds, advanced propulsion expert Richard Obousy, co-founder of Icarus Interstellar, rebutted the concern that the spaceship would get fried by the death ray of deadly interstellar particles.
“I’m fairly sure some kind of shielding would be required [when traveling at warp speed],” Obousy told Discovery News. “I’m quite interested in doing some more research into the ‘cloaking device’ that’s been in the news recently using metamaterials that bend radiation around objects. I don’t know enough about this field yet, but it’s an obvious place to start.”
The warpship concept uses dark energy to manipulate spacetime, creating a warp bubble.
Scientists involved in developing warp drive concepts realize their work is highly speculative and likely to remain in Star Trek scripts for some years to come. But in an effort to envisage how our hypothetically advanced technologies might harness a warping capability, Richard Obousy further developed Alcubierre's warp drive idea, using current physics.
Enter the Warpship.
Superstring theory suggests that our universe is composed of many extra-dimensions. If these dimensions could be somehow compressed and expanded, the very fabric of spacetime may be manipulated too. Assuming our future descendents work out the true nature of mysterious dark energy, and assuming they find a novel way of utilizing that energy, then a spacecraft like Obousy's warpship may have warp drive capabilities. Unfortunately, vast quantities of energy are required to make that happen. By Obousy's reckoning, the mass-energy of Jupiter should do the trick! But, hey, at least it's an improvement on Alcubierre's warp drive that needed all the energy in the observable universe to start up.
Two possible warpship configurations. Richard Obousy's warpship concept (left) and Sonny White's "energy efficient" warpship design.
The great thing about physicists is that they love to solve problems. And the energy requirement for a fully-functioning warpship is a very big problem. If you thought your Hummer was uneconomic, try filling up your starship with the matter-energy equivalent of one Jupiter every time you wanted to take a spin around Orion's Belt!
Now Sonny White, of NASA's Johnson Space Center, has taken a look at the warp speed problem and tweaked the warpship design. After running the calculations, White has shrunk the warp drive's fuel economy. By turning the warpship's ring into a "rounded doughnut" and oscillating the warp field, his theoretical warpship will run off the equivalent mass-energy as the Voyager 1 spacecraft. Granted, that's still a lot of energy, but it's a vast improvement on the requirement to blend up one whole Jupiter.
Captain Jean Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) in "Star Trek: The Next Generation"
Physicists may like finding solutions to complex problems, but development of any kind of warp drive will remain speculative at best. But it's certainly not a waste of time either. Also, White is working on laboratory tests that may model a warp field on a very small scale.
White is developing the White-Juday Warp Field Interferometer at the Johnson Space Center, in an effort to create a laser interferometer that produces microscopic space-time warps. Granted, this is a tiny first step, but it could be the seed from which larger-scale spacetime warping techniques grow.
Warp speed will remain a science fiction notion for the time being, but we have little clue about potentially disruptive technologies that may facilitate it in the distant future.
Who knows? The final frontier may be closer than we think.