According to an article in Gizmodo, a team at the Johnson Spaceflight Center in Houston is studying what sort of technology could be developed that would create a warp drive, a common element in science fiction such as "Star Trek."
Faster than light travel impossible
It is an axiom in modern physics that faster than light travel, at least by conventional means, is impossible. The fasting an object is accelerated, the more massive it becomes, according to a piece on the problem on the Discovery Channel website. At the speed of light, an object would have infinite mass, clearly impossible. In any case, even at near light speed, the nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, is about a 4 1/2-year voyage away.
How a warp drive would work
However, there appears to be a way, at least mathematically, to get around the faster than light problem.According to Popular Science, it is possible to create a "warp bubble" around an object such as a space ship. Spacetime ahead of the ship could be compressed and spacetime behind the ship could be expanded. In effect, a future starship would travel not by moving itself but by moving space.
The NASA experiments
A team inside NASA's Eagleworks, a skunkworks operation at the Johnson Space Center, is working on an experiment that would create and detect a microscopic warp bubble, according to Gizmodo. The team proposes to do this with a device called the White-Juday Warp Field Interferometer that will use a laser to create the microscopic warp bubble.
The energy problem
Hitherto, while such a warp drive was considered theoretically possible, it was thought that it would take an amount of exotic matter, more of a concept in physics than something that has actually been discovered, the size of Jupiter to power it. However, the NASA scientists working on the warp bubble experiment have ascertained that by tweaking the shape and nature of the warp field, about 500 kilograms of exotic matter would be needed to fire up a warp drive, according to Gizmodo. .
Implications of a warp drive
The implications of the proof of the concept of a warp bubble cannot be overstated. Space.com suggests that a football field-sized starship, surrounded by a ring that would generate the warp bubble, could travel an apparent speed of 10 times light speed. Gizmodo suggests that an Earthlike world about 20 light years away, Gliese 581g, would be a two year voyage away.
Naturally a great deal of work would have to be done before a real-life Captain Kirk can issue the order, "Ahead Warp Factor Two." For one thing, some way has to be found to create exotic matter. But if the experiment works, a giant leap toward that day will have been achieved.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.