Faster than light (FTL) travel has always been a hallmark of science fiction, but buzz kill scientists have always said the concept was impossible because it violates the cardinal rule of Einstein’s relativity, namely that the very building blocks of the universe mean that nothing can go faster than light.
Now NASA may have found a loophole, enabling them to travel to distant stars that are several light years away, all without violating relativity. The only problem? It might blow up whatever is waiting at its destination.
Back in 1994, physicist Miguel Alcubierre came up with a novel way to get around the relativity problem: warping space-time. He proposed a mechanism where a vehicle would move forward by contracting space-time in front and expanding space-time behind. This would be accomplished through placing a spheroid object within specifically shaped concentric rings creating a space-time warp bubble. This warp bubble would push the ship forward through the universe faster than light while its relative speed remained zero.
Of course this process would take a tremendous amount of energy. The reason scientists didn’t start building Alcubierre warp engines back in 1994 was that the theory also figured that huge amounts of energy would be needed to power up the drive. Like the total mass energy of the planet of Jupiter massive. So the Alccubierre drive was shelved as one of those things that would remain theoretical.
However, a few months ago, physicist Harold White announced that his team at NASA was working on an Alcubierre drive and that it would use just a infinitesimal fraction of the energy earlier theorized. So what changed? io9 interviewed White to explain the change.
“My early results suggested I had discovered something that was in the math all along,” he told io9. “I suddenly realized that if you made the thickness of the negative vacuum energy ring larger — like shifting from a belt shape to a donut shape — and oscillate the warp bubble, you can greatly reduce the energy required — perhaps making the idea plausible.”
Essentially, White simply proposed shifting the shape of the rings around the spheroid. This little change, White says, reduced the amount of energy needed from the mass of Jupiter, to that of a traditional rocket. Quite a feat.
Now, all of this is still theoretical at this point, so it might not work exactly how NASA thinks it will or at all. And even if it does work, the human race probably won’t be zipping around like the James T. Kirk quite yet. There is the little detail that the Alcubierre drive will probably destroy or at least irradiate anything at its target destination. Universe Today explains:
Researchers from the University of Sydney have done some advanced crunching of numbers regarding the effects of FTL space travel via Alcubierre drive, taking into consideration the many types of cosmic particles that would be encountered along the way. Space is not just an empty void between point A and point B… rather, it’s full of particles that have mass (as well as some that do not.) What the research team — led by Brendan McMonigal, Geraint Lewis, and Philip O’Byrne — has found is that these particles can get “swept up” into the warp bubble and focused into regions before and behind the ship, as well as within the warp bubble itself.
When the Alcubierre-driven ship decelerates from superluminal speed, the particles its bubble has gathered are released in energetic outbursts. In the case of forward-facing particles the outburst can be very energetic — enough to destroy anyone at the destination directly in front of the ship.
Now, this might be something that can be fixed by stopping early or slightly off from the destination in question, or it might be something that makes the whole engine unworkable. The real issue lies in the fact that there is no theoretical limit to how much energy could be stored this way. Basically, if the Alubierre ship travels far enough it could accumulate enough energy to blow up whole planets or even more. And the energy would be released in all directions, making safe parking more than a little dicey.
Thoughts of exploding planets are a touch premature though. ”I’m not ready to discuss much beyond the math and very controlled modest approaches in the lab,” White told io9. That said, this is FTL travel seems 100% more possible now than before NASA started this program.http://news.nationalpost.com/2012/11/29/nasa-is-actually-working-on-a-faster-than-light-warp-drive-but-it-might-blow-up-any-planet-it-travels-to/