“The bottom line is, nature can do it,” said White. “So the salient question is, ‘can we?'”
In the “Star Trek” TV shows and films, the U.S.S. Enterprise’s warp engine allows the ship to move faster than light, an ability that is, as Spock would say, “highly illogical.”
However, there’s a loophole in Einstein’s general theory of relativity that could allow a ship to traverse vast distances in less time than it would take light. The trick? It’s not the starship that’s moving — it’s the space around it.
In fact, scientists at NASA are right now working on the first practical field test toward proving the possibility of warp drives and faster-than-light travel. Maybe the warp drive on “Star Trek” is possible after all. [See also: Warp Drive: Can It Be Done? (Video)]
According to Einstein’s theory, an object with mass cannot go as fast or faster than the speed of light. The original “Star Trek” series ignored this “universal speed limit” in favor of a ship that could zip around the galaxy in a matter of days instead of decades. They tried to explain the ship’s faster-than-light capabilities by powering the warp engine with a “matter-antimatter” engine. Antimatter was a popular field of study in the 1960s, when creator Gene Roddenberry was first writing the series. When matter and antimatter collide, their mass is converted to kinetic energy in keeping with Einstein’s mass-energy equivalence formula, E=mc2.
In other words, matter-antimatter collision is a potentially powerful source of energy and fuel, but even that wouldn’t be enough to propel a starship to faster-than-light speeds.
Nevertheless, it’s thanks to “Star Trek” that the word “warp” is now practically synonymous with faster-than-light travel.
Is warp drive possible?
Decades after the original “Star Trek” show had gone off the air, pioneering physicist and avowed Trek fan Miguel Alcubierre argued that maybe a warp drive is possible after all. It just wouldn’t work quite the way “Star Trek” thought it did.
Things with mass can’t move faster than the speed of light. But what if, instead of the ship moving through space, the space was moving around the ship?
Space doesn’t have mass. And we know that it’s flexible: space has been expanding at a measurable rate ever since the Big Bang. We know this from observing the light of distant stars — over time, the wavelength of the stars’ light as it reaches Earth is lengthened in a process called “redshifting.” According to the Doppler effect, this means that the source of the wavelength is moving further away from the observer — i.e. Earth.
So we know from observing redshifted light that the fabric of space is movable. [See also:What to Wear on a 100-Year Starship Voyage]
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