Artist's concept of the space plane being designed by Northrop Grumman, with help from Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic, for DARPA's XS-1 program.
Introducing the Warpship
Until now, there has been little idea about what a spaceship propelled by a warp drive (or a warpship) would look like. Would it resemble the sleek Starship Enterprise? Or will it be like nothing we've seen before? After speaking with Dr. Richard Obousy, he shared his concept for a futuristic, yet scientifically accurate, warpship design. The physics behind the warpship is purely theoretical, however. 'Dark energy' needs to be understood and harnessed, plus vast amounts of energy needs to be generated, meaning the warpship is a technology that could only be conceived in the far future. That said, Dr. Obousy's warpship design uses our current knowledge of spacetime and superstring theory to arrive at this futuristic concept. So here's your exclusive look at what could be the future warp drive propulsion...
Capturing Dark Energy
The physics behind the warp drive is, as you'd expect, complex. However, it is hoped that in the future mankind will learn how to harness 'dark energy', an energy that is theorized to permeate through the entire universe. Cosmologists are particularly interested in dark energy as it is most commonly associated with the observed expansion of the universe. Immediately after the Big Bang, some 13.73 billion years ago, the universe expanded faster than the speed of light, an event called universal inflation. Dark energy (which still has experts baffled as to what it actually is) is theorized to have driven this expansion, and it continues to this day. Much like the 2-dimensional surface of a balloon stretching when being inflated, 3-dimensional space is stretching, propelling the galaxies away from one another. If an advanced technology could harness this dark energy, a warpship could possibly manipulate the spacetime surrounding it. According to Dr. Obousy, the extra dimensions as predicted by superstring theory could be shrunk and expanded by the warp drive through manipulation of local dark energy. At the front of the warpship spacetime would be compressed, and it would expand behind. "You can apply the analogy of a surfer riding a 'wave' of spacetime," Dr. Obousy told Discovery Space. This 'wave' would facilitate faster-than-light-speed propulsion without breaking any laws of physics.
The shape of the warpship was chosen to optimize the manipulation of surrounding dark energy, creating a spacetime bubble. How exactly the bubble would be created is still a mystery. But once the bubble gets created, spacetime at the front of the warpship would be compressed, and behind, it would expand. Inside the bubble, spacetime remains unchanged; therefore the warpship floats in the center of stationary space while the bubble moves through spacetime. The bubble itself, containing the warpship, "drives the spacecraft forwards at arbitrarily high speeds," said Obousy. This means the warpship can travel faster than the speed of light. To initiate the warp drive, however, vast amounts of energy would be required. Also, there will be some practical issues to overcome, such as preventing the creation of artificial black holes, as well as catastrophic warp bubble collapse when the power is switched off.
The world is starting to get a better idea of what the U.S. military's proposed new space plane might look like.
This week, aerospace firm Northrop Grumman released artwork depicting its conception of the XS-1 space plane, which it's designing under a $3.9 million contract from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
Northrop Grumman is one of three companies competing for the right to build the unmanned XS-1, which is short for "Experimental Spaceplane." The other two are Boeing and Masten Space Systems, both of which also won yearlong "Phase 1" initial design contracts in July.
DARPA wants the XS-1 to make spaceflight much more routine and affordable. The reusable vehicle should be able to fly 10 times in a 10-day span and launch 3,000- to 5,000-lb. (1,361 to 2,268 kilograms) payloads to orbit for less than $5 million per flight, officials have said.
XS-1 will probably feature a reusable first stage and one or more expendable upper stages. The first stage will fly to suborbital space at hypersonic speeds, then return to Earth to be used again; the upper stages will deploy payloads to orbit.
Northrop Grumman is teaming with other aerospace companies on its design, tapping Scaled Composites to head manufacture-and-assembly work and Virgin Galactic to lead XS-1 operation.
"Our team is uniquely qualified to meet DARPA's XS-1 operational system goals, having built and transitioned many developmental systems to operational use, including our current work on the world's only commercial spaceline, Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo," Doug Young, vice president for missile defense and advanced missions at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, said in a statement.
"We plan to bundle proven technologies into our concept that we developed during related projects for DARPA, NASA and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, giving the government maximum return on those investments," he added.
Northrop Grumman is not alone in reaching out to other firms for assistance in developing an XS-1 design. Masten is working with XCOR Aerospace, and Boeing is teaming with Jeff Bezos' secretive firm Blue Origin.
DARPA expects to hold a Phase 2 competition next year to see which company makes it to the flight-test stage of XS-1 development. (The agency only has enough money for one XS-1 contractor in the end.) Officials currently envision that the first orbital mission of XS-1 will take place in 2018.
Originally published on Space.com.
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