Space & Innovation

Warp Drive Engine Would Travel Faster Than Light

Physicists outline how to manipulate the fabric of space to accelerate a craft faster than the speed of light -- in theory, anyway.

It is possible to travel faster than light. You just wouldn't travel faster than light.

Seems strange, but by manipulating extra dimensions with astronomical amounts of energy, two Baylor University physicists have outlined how a faster-than-light engine, or warp drive, could be created that would bend but not break the laws of physics.

"We think we can create an effective warp drive, based on general relatively and string theory," said Gerald Cleaver, coauthor of the paper that recently appeared on the preprint server The warp engine is based on a design first proposed in1994 by Michael Alcubierre. The Alcubierre drive, as it's known, involves expanding the fabric of space behind a ship into a bubble and shrinking space-time in front of the ship. The ship would rest in between the expanding and shrinking space-time, essentially surfing down the side of the bubble.

The tricky part is that the ship wouldn't actually move; space itself would move underneath the stationary spacecraft. A beam of light next to the ship would still zoom away, same as it always does, but a beam of light far from the ship would be left behind.

That means that the ship would arrive at its destination faster than a beam of light traveling the same distance, but without violating Einstein's relativity, which says that it would take an infinite amount of energy to accelerate an object with mass to the speed of light, since the ship itself isn't actually moving.

The fabric of space has moved faster than light before, says Cleaver, right after the Big Bang, when the universe expanded faster than the speed of light.

"We're recreating the inflationary period of the universe behind the ship," said Cleaver.

While the theory rests on relatively firm ground, the next question is how do you expand space behind the ship and contract it in front of the ship?

Cleaver and Richard Obousy, the other coauthor, propose manipulating the 11th dimension, a special theoretical construct of m-theory (the offspring of string theory), to create the bubble the ship would surf down.

If the 11th dimension could be shrunk behind the ship it would create a bubble of dark energy, the same dark energy that is causing the universe to speed up as time goes on. Expanding the 11th dimension in front of the ship would eventually cause it to decrease, although two separate steps are required.

Exactly how the 11th dimension would be expanded and shrunk is still unknown.

"These calculations are based on some arbitrary advance in technology or some alien technology that would let us manipulate the extra dimension," said Cleaver.

What the scientists were able to estimate was the amount of energy necessary, if the technology was available, to change these dimensions: about 10^45 joules.

"That's about the amount of energy you'd get if you converted the entire mass of Jupiter into pure energy via E = mc^2," said Cleaver, an energy far beyond anything humanity can currently envision creating.

While the challenges to creating a warp drive are quite formidable, the concept is intriguing, says Tufts University theoretical physicist Lawrence Ford.

"If there are extra dimensions and we could manipulate them, that would open up all sorts of exciting possibilities," said Ford.

"I don't see this leading immediately to a warp drive, but I could see it leading to other interesting possibilities in basic scientific research," said Ford.

Cleaver agrees that the creation of a real warp drive is still far away.

"Warp drive isn't doable now, and probably won't be for the next several millenia," said Cleaver.

The Alcubierre drive, as it's known, involves expanding the fabric of space behind a ship into a bubble and shrinking space-time in front of the ship.

Preparing to Depart

April 17, 2012

-- With the end of the shuttle program last year, NASA is beginning to retire the fleet of its most iconic creations. Follow the space shuttle Discovery as it is flown to its final destination at the Smithsonian Institution in Virginia, reminding us of NASA's successful parlay of American ingenuity into regular low-orbit space travel. Space Shuttle Discovery (Near) sits by as Endeavor (Far) leaves the Orbiter Processing Facility on its way to the Vehicle Assembly Building for processing. Space Shuttles Endeavor and Discovery switched buildings as they are being decommissioned with the end of the Shuttle program.

PHOTOS: Space Shuttle to Slip Into History

Ready for Takeoff Discovery piggybacks on a NASA modified Boeing 747 for its journey to the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. Each of the four remaining orbiters will have homes at museums around the United States. Atlantis will stay at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Endeavor will go to Los Angeles and Enterprise, the prototype shuttle, will go to New York City. Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson told, "I want that picture of a young 6-year-old boy looking up at a space shuttle in a museum and saying, 'Daddy, I want to do something like that when I grow up."

SCIENCE CHANNEL: Shuttle Discovery Over Washington, D.C.

Saying Goodbye As the 747 and shuttle leave Florida's airspace for the last time, they fly over the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) where it prepared for each of its missions.

NEWS: Shuttle's Assembly Building Open to the Public

Saying Goodbye People look up and watch as Discovery departs for retirement. Since its completion in 1984, shuttle Discovery has flown more missions than any other shuttle – more than any other spacecraft, in fact," said NASA. It flew 39 missions, orbited the Earth 5,600 time and carried 180 people.

ANALYSIS: The Shuttle Is Dead; Long Live The Politics

Flying Space shuttles don't technically fly on their own, they glide from space using actuators, thrusters and aerobraking to slow their descent and touch down at specialized landing facilities. When shuttle Columbia landed STS-1 (the very first shuttle mission) in 1981 the commander and tower exchanged the following:

STS-1 Capcom

: Welcome home Columbia. Beautiful, beautiful.

John Young/STS-1 Commander

: Do I have to take it up to the hangar, Joe?

STS-1 Capcom

: We're going to dust it off first.

BLOG: Shuttle Columbia Crew Remembered

DC Flyover On the way to Virgina for its final landing, Discovery pass over Washington, D.C. multiple times allowing for passersby and enthusiasts alike to see the rarity of a 747 carrying a space orbiter. Note the Lincoln Memorial in the lower left, and the small dot of the NASA T-38 chase plane alongside.

NEWS: Virgin Galactic Snares NASA Shuttle Ops Guru

Washington Monument The flyover took place between 10 and 11 am on April 17, 2012. With something so big it can be difficult to make precise maneuvers, but the pilot was able to loop the city and surrounding areas four times. The Smithsonian Institution said in a press release, the plane would fly at an altitude of 1,500 feet, or approximately three times the height of the Washington Monument.

Old Post Office As the orbiter-toting 747 turns for a final pass, the sun catches the vehicles by the Old Post Office tower on Pennsylvania Avenue.

WIDE ANGLE: All Discovery News' Space Shuttle Stories

Final Pass As it makes its final pass over the Washington Monument you can see the NASA logo on the tail fin of the 747.

BLOG: Boeing to Bring Space Taxis to Old Shuttle Hangar

Landing Coming in for a final landing at Dulles Airport in Virginia, the Discovery will be taken to Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center where it will participate in a few final celebrations before being put on permanent display.

PHOTOS: An Intimate View of Life Aboard Atlantis

A Final Look The space shuttle program still has more trips to make. Enterprise, the prototype shuttle, is stored at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center and has been on display since 2003. Though it never went into space, it has been used for flight operations and testing and will be hoisted onto the modified Boeing 747 for a trip to its final retirement home at the Intrepid Museum in New York City.

PHOTOS: Space Station Astronauts Log One Million Photos