Space is unfathomably big, and that’s the problem. To have any hopes of effectively traversing it, humanity can’t just build ships that go really, really fast. Even if we could travel at the speed of light, getting to the next closest star would take years. At the extreme, a trip to another galaxy could take decades, and when the interstellar travelers returned, friends, family, and loved ones would be long gone.
Space is so big that effective travel can’t just traverse the ‘verse—it has to bend it.
So called “warp engines” have been a staple of science fiction ever since writers needed to tackle the problem of space’s extreme emptiness. By warping space, travelers circumvent the problem of time dilation (travelers age slowly during travel while the rest of the universe ages regularly) that would make any kind of space-wide economy or civilization impossible.
Warp engines would work by using theoretical “exotic matter” (read: stuff we’ve never discovered but solves the math) to distort space-time around a craft—expanding space behind the ship and contracting space in front of it (we need “exotic matter” because so far getting the incredible amount of energy required to bend space is almost impossible). This “warp bubble” would encase the ship and effectively move space around it, instead of moving the ship through space. The result is faster than light speed travel, and actually creating such a drive would bring us that much closer to making Star Trek a reality.
Physicist Harold “Sonny” White is the scientist who made big news when he announced that warp engines are at least theoretically feasible, even buildable. Things got even more exciting when White concluded that the energy required to make the “Alcubierre Drive” work was orders of magnitude less than he originally calculated. And now, thanks to White’s collaboration with concept artist Mark Rademaker, we have pictures of what the final space ship might look like. In short, it looks fantastic.
Though we have the theories and the concept art, we don’t yet have any proof that a warp-capable star ship like the “IXS Enterprise” is in our near future. NASA admits that warp drive is in the “speculation stage” and White, in a video discussing his project says that all the plans are “still in the existence-proof stage of development.” More forcefully, physicist Dr. Matthew R. Francis writing in Slate says, “from what physicists have learned about the universe and its contents, White’s warp drive can’t work, period.” The matter that White’s math requires simply isn’t known to exist. Even the physicist who “solved” Einstein’s equations allowing for a warp bubble, Miguel Alcubierre, doesn’t think a warp drive can be built. And because NASA is in fact spending tax dollars exploring a warp drive that theoretical cosmologist Richard Easther says “not a single reputable scientist takes seriously,” perhaps the numerous outlets touting the warp drive should have payed more attention to the math and not the shiny pictures.
The promise of faster than light travel is an enticing one. Indeed, warp-capable star ships are the premise for a major Hollywood movie coming out later this year, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. But we probably won’t ever pilot an IXS Enterprise, so for now we will have to content ourselves with dreaming of what our first ship to bring us to another star might look like.
Kyle Hill is the Science Officer of the Nerdist enterprise. Follow the continued geekery on Twitter @Sci_Phile.
IMAGES: All images reproduced with explicit permission from Mark Rademaker