Going faster than the speed of light is impossible, according to Albert Einstein’s Special Relativity Theory, yet theoretical physicists bend their minds to the task, wondering if there’s a way around the rules.
Traveling well beyond our solar system—as far as the imagination can take us into space—would require faster-than-light (FTL), or superluminal, velocities. What kind of technology could help us travel so quickly? Assuming this technology were available, how much energy would be required to fuel it?
These are the kinds of questions scientists, including those at NASA, are eager to come to grasp with. But imagine getting to those immensely distant realms by not moving at all.
The current theoretical model for superluminal speed involves creating a bubble of space around a vessel. The vessel would be encapsulated in its own, independent space-time, which would be manipulated, or “warped” (think “Star Trek’s” warp drive), to propel the bubble towards its destination. These concepts were first formed in 1994 by physicist Miguel Alcubierre.
Alcubierre’s warp drive was theoretically possible, noted Discovery News, but it would need all the energy in the entire universe to function.
That was over two decades ago, and since then, theoretical physicists have made more advances in this field that have drastically reduced the energy demands of the warp drive. The estimated energy now thought to be needed is merely the entire annual energy consumption of the United States.
NASA’s Dr. Harold “Sonny” White at the Johnson Space Center, who made the calculations, took a different approach to warp field mechanics and proposed a craft with a doughnut shape that would oscillate the warp intensity, instead of a flat ring. The oscillation could, theoretically, reduce energy requirements.
White’s design and calculation, released in 2011, was a dramatic step towards energy demands we could achieve. The entire annual energy consumption of the U.S. is still a tall order to fill just to start a trip around the galaxy, but it is light-years closer to our grasp than “all the energy in the universe.”
More on How the Warp Drive Could Work
Eric W. Davis, a senior research physicist at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Austin, Texas, used a analogy to describe the distortion of space-time in an interview with Discovery News. If using conventional rocket technology to travel through space is like swimming, using the bubble warp drive would be like riding a wave of space on a surfboard.
But wait, wouldn’t the passengers and travelers be instantly crushed by acceleration forces? Remember, in this bubble, passengers wouldn’t really be moving, only the space around them—their bubbles—would be moving. Their vessels and all the objects within, including their bodies, would be completely stationary.
If you were traveling within this bubble and you closed your eyes, you would not even feel yourself traveling! Furthermore, you would not be violating Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity, which prohibits matter from traveling at superluminal speed. You (your matter) would not be traveling at that speed.
Another interesting “violation” of Einstein’s theory is the Big Bang. The present understanding is that shortly after the Big Bang, space expanded faster than the speed of light. Currently there is no known top speed for the expansion of space.
Famed physicist Michio Kaku explained the principle behind this in a Big Think interview: “The Big Bang itself expanded much faster than the speed of light. But this only means that ‘nothing can go faster than light.’ Since nothing is just empty space or vacuum, it can expand faster than light speed since no material object is breaking the light barrier. Therefore, empty space can certainly expand faster than light.”
How exactly do scientists propose to create this space-time bubble and manipulate it anyway?
One idea is to learn to manipulate dark energy, a force we don’t understand much about, but which is causing the universe to expand. Another is to manipulate gravity, again something still not entirely understood. Gravity is a bending in space-time. Physicist Ron Mallett has theoretically shown that lasers could affect gravity in such a way as to send a message back in time. He proposes using light to manipulate space-time.
*Concept image of space travel via Shutterstock