Thursday, September 20, 2012

To the stars of tomorrow via the science fiction of yesterday

If you have for some reason Googled "Star Trek" or "warp drive" in the last 24 hours, your results were drastically different than they would have been a week ago. In the second week of September, both of those terms pretty much went together: in the Star Trek universe, the warp drive is the main means of interstellar travel, allowing giant, funny-looking spacecraft to go real far, real fast.

But starting early this week, those results would have been a bit different. That's because scientsists think they may be close to warping a tiny bit of space... a small step toward the gargantuan goal of warping enough space to literally move stuff around at up to 10 times the speed of light, without breaking any of nature's laws.
An Alcubierre warp drive would involve a football-shape spacecraft attached to a large ring encircling it. This ring, potentially made of exotic matter, would cause space-time to warp around the starship, creating a region of contracted space in front of it and expanded space behind.

Meanwhile, the starship itself would stay inside a bubble of flat space-time that wasn't being warped at all.
"Everything within space is restricted by the speed of light," explained Richard Obousy, president of Icarus Interstellar, a non-profit group of scientists and engineers devoted to pursuing interstellar spaceflight. "But the really cool thing is space-time, the fabric of space, is not limited by the speed of light."

With this concept, the spacecraft would be able to achieve an effective speed of about 10 times the speed of light, all without breaking the cosmic speed limit.

Yeah, the math behind this--which the scientists thankfully left out--would no doubt make my head implode like a dying star. But the idea is actually pretty simple, and on paper anyway, pretty promising.

An object can't physically move faster than the speed of light; E=MC^2 means the amount of energy needed to accelerate that object becomes infinite as it approaches that "barrier." But if space itself can be reshaped, then the actual velocity of that object can remain at non-ludicrous levels, and it can get from Point A to Point B much faster because the distance has been made much smaller. Actually, when you think about it, this isn't much different from what Madeleine L'Engle proposed in "A Wrinkle in Time": like folding a piece of cloth to make points far apart close together.

So what is the upshot of all this?

Well, humans have been trying to explore more and more space for a while now, and at some point we're going to want to leave our solar system. Even that is a huge amount of celestial real estate; the Voyager I probe is JUST NOW leaving the neighborhood, and it was launched in 1977. So we need to travel faster. All kinds of proposals have been made in this area, mostly involving nuclear propulsion. Some, like Project Orion, might actually work. But they all have drawbacks (Orion's drawback: its propulsion system involved detonating nuclear weapons behind it).

The "warp drive" described above skirts all those issues. Of course, the scientists involved are careful to note that these are only small-scale experiments and a long, long way (light years, one might say) from an actual engine. But hey, even the mighty Space Shuttle started life hundreds of years ago as some gunpowder and a hollowed-out bamboo shoot. In the meantime, it's fun--and exciting--to think that science may actually be catching up to science fiction.

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