New Study Proposes Warp Drive That Might Actually Work

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(Credit: Eduard Muzhevskyi/Getty Images) Exploring the universe in Star Trek is as easy as firing up the warp drive and zipping off to the next adventure, but real life is much more tedious without faster-than-light (FTL) travel. Physicists have speculated on the possibility of a real warp drive for years, but a new paper lays out a vision for a warp drive that might actually work. We still don’t know how to build it, but at least we know why we can’t build it yet.

Let’s say you want to visit Proxima Centauri, which is the closest alien solar system. It’s four light-years away, which works out to trillions of kilometers, or miles, or leagues, or whatever — in the trillions, it doesn’t really matter. It’s very, very far away. It would take millennia to reach Proxima Centauri with current technology, but if you can move faster than light, you could be there in no time. The problem is physics: General relativity says that nothing can go faster than light, a claim that has thus far held up to scientific scrutiny. 

In 1994 theoretical physicist Miguel Alcubierre proposed a model for a warp drive vessel that didn’t violate the laws of the universe, but it required exotic negative energy that we can’t produce (it may not even be possible). A new paper from physicists Alexey Bobrick and Gianni Martire started making the rounds late last year, claiming that a physical warp drive may indeed be possible. That paper has now been peer-reviewed and published in the journal Classical and Quantum Gravity.

Unlike the Alcubierre Drive, the Bobrick-Martire version doesn’t require unfathomable amounts of negative energy. The paper doesn’t describe a vessel but rather a bubble of spacetime that could surround a vessel, a person, or anything else. The bubble (above) can behave however it likes, including accelerating to speeds faster than light. At least, that’s how it would look to an outside observer. To anyone inside the bubble, the laws of physics would remain intact as the “passenger area” consists of completely flat spacetime. Physicist Sabine Hossenfelder (below) broke the paper down when it first began circulating a few months ago. 

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There are still problems to work out here, so don’t start packing for your space adventure quite yet. We don’t know how to make a spacetime bubble. The matter and energy distribution in such a structure are still a mystery. Even if we could make such an object, we’d have to find the right geometry to accelerate it efficiently. Something as small as the way people are sitting inside a warp bubble could change the amount of energy required. 

The important thing is that the Bobrick-Martire Drive gives us a stronger mathematical basis for studying the possibility of FTL travel. Physicists who are adept at sniffing out silly space travel hypotheses have given this paper their stamp of approval, and it will no doubt spur others to add their two cents. In Star Trek, they didn’t develop warp drive until 2063. We’ve got some time yet.

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