There has been a lot of excitement over reports that NASA is developing a faster than light starship propelled by a warp drive capable of making journeys to nearby stars in mere weeks. There are even very pretty artist’s impressions of the hypothetical craft. Is a wonderful space operatic future among the stars lying just ahead of us?

 

With warp drive we could perhaps see NGC3572 up close.

With warp drive we could perhaps see NGC3572 up close. (image credit: ESO/G. Beccari)

 

 

Sadly no. There is though a grain of reality in the hyperbole. The man behind the story is engineer and physicist Harold G. White, who works at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. For the past few years White has promoted the concept of the warp drive (links to his scientific papers can be found at Crowlspace) .

Making information or matter travel faster than the speed of light appears to be utterly impossible. Faster than light speeds have never been observed (although there have been false alarms) and the hypothetical superluminal particles, tachyons, are still just that, hypothetical. In science fiction, most famously the Star Trek franchise,  a propulsion system called warp drive enables starships to travel faster than light across the Milky Way. How is this meant to work?  According to fiction, a warp drive bends space around the starship, enclosing it in a bubble of curved space. This bubble can move at speeds greater than light because Einstein’s speed limit does not apply to space itself. Meanwhile the ship is carried along inside the bubble. Does this science fiction fantasy have any relationship with reality?

Surprisingly, the answer is maybe. In 1994 a physicist called Miguel Alcubierre published a paper containing a sort of mathematical justification for warp drive. It described how the ship would draw itself forward by contracting spacetime ahead of it while expanding it behind in an effect analogous to one of those moving walkways they have at airports. However, for this to work, there must be a ring of intense negative energy wrapped around the ship. Negative energy is an impossible thing that does not exist, implying the existence of matter with negative mass (this is not the same thing as antimatter which can in theory be created although with extreme difficulty). Note too, this whole idea simply assumes that the whole “warp bubble” would indeed move faster than the speed of light. We simply do not know that.

 

Schematic diagram of a starship generating a Alcubierre warp drive bubble, showing spatial compression ahead of the bubble, and spatial expansion behind (Image credit: NASA via Gizmag.com)

Schematic diagram of a starship generating a Alcubierre warp drive bubble, showing spatial compression ahead of the bubble, and spatial expansion behind. (Image credit: NASA via Gizmag.com)

 

Alcubierre’s warp drive concept is simply a theorist’s plaything, stretching Einsteinian physics to breaking point on paper to see what happens. Since then other researchers have suggested Alcubierre’s warp drive would in reality be immensely destructive, claiming EM radiation ahead of starship would be blue-shifted into lethal gamma rays. A real warp drive ship, theory suggests, would be an awesome doomsday device.

Harold White, leader of NASA’s  Advanced Propulsion Team, claims to have improved upon Alcubierre’s concept, proving to his own satisfaction that it is feasible and open to experimental verification. White’s theories have not met with much acceptance from the wider community of physicists. Undaunted, White and colleagues have designed and built a bench-top setup to detect the distortions in space-time a warp field might generate should it exist. This test rig, a modified Michelson interferometer is a very small scale device. White and his collaborators have then applied thousands of volts to a small (about 5mm in diameter) ring of ceramic capacitors near the detector. White’s theory suggests the intense electric field created ought to generate a warp field which could be detected with the interferometer. To date the results obtained have been inconclusive, but White is hoping to refine his experiment, increasing its sensitivity.

This is a very small scale project, costing less than $50 000 to date.   At conferences, Harold White  talks up his research, perhaps giving some listeners the impression that this is a larger, better supported project than it is, with the clear goal of building a starship for human exploration of our stellar neighbourhood.  In June 2014 White published the beautiful photorealistic  images of a hypothetical starship that have caught the public’s imagination. White commissioned these illustrations from artist Mark Rademaker, the design is closely based on White’s specifications (with rather a lot of Star Trek inspiration too, it is even named Enterprise) but I am unclear how ‘official’ the artwork is. Like all good sci-fi ships  the design is unnecessarily streamlined and seems to magically simulate gravity inside its hull so that the interior is laid out like that of a boat. I used to spend hours as a kid carefully drawing starships, this concept is much prettier than my sketches but sadly no more realistic. It is hard to believe this delightful collection of fanciful art was funded by NASA. Allegedly White has said a vessel based on his theories could travel from Earth to Alpha Centauri, 4.3 light years away, in two weeks but this seems a mere assertion, being unproven and in fact as of now unprovable.

 

I am sorry to throw cold water on a story that has excited so many around the world. but in short, faster than light travel is still as impossible as it has ever been. NASA has not discovered how to travel faster than light, is not constructing a prototype warp drive and definitely not currently even planning a spacecraft based on White’s research. Rather NASA is very modestly funding a small scale research project to explore one researcher’s speculations about physics which if correct offer a slight chance than it may be possible to manipulate space-time. The researcher in question is (perhaps prematurely) passionately promoting his work.

This research by White and colleagues could (and most likely will) lead nowhere, turning out to be another scientific self-delusion like cold fusion or polywater.  Yet it is still worth looking at because it is not costing much and the payoff could be huge: anything that could easily take humanity to the stars would be an awesome step in our species’ history. Just don’t count your starships before they’re launched.

(UPDATE: Harold White has investigated other unconventional propulsion concepts. He is a member of a team which in July 2014 claimed to have verified a reactionless thruster device, a concept which violates the very well-established law of conservation of momentum. More recently the Eagleworks team claim to have observed space-warping effects inside one of their reactionless thruster test devices.)

(article by Colin Johnston, Science Education Director, last updated 13 May 2015)


45 Comments

Víctor Ortiz · June 19, 2016 at 07:55

(Apologies but this content cannot be published as submitted. Please resubmit an English translation of this content. ADMIN)

SpaceCadet · April 6, 2016 at 16:12

I am reading both the article and comments with interest.

There is a modern-day appliance that uses a relatively small amount of power to create high temperature differentials, significantly greater than if the equivalent power were simply used to radiate heat through dissipation in an electrically resistive element.

It is called a heat pump! Relying on existing external temperature gradients between disparate spaces, a compressor is used to tractor, push, pull, or bucket-brigade a working fluid that has a high heat of evaporation within the envelope of practical working pressures. It is thus is a TRAIN for energy exchange, using the concept of cliff faces, waterfalls, and discontinuity in the energy state stability of a matter phase transition.

Example: You find an object already sitting on the top of a plateau. You personally expend a small amount of energy pushing the object from near the cliff face to right at the cliff face. The amount of energy within the fall to the base of the cliff itself is far greater! You may have to IMAGINE the potential energy invested in the object to be located atop the plateau if you didn’t witness it, provide it, or pay for it. It is for all intents and purposes, FREE ENERGY TO YOU.

But what if there was a way to distort a flat plane populated with objects in such a way that at a particular boundary in a localized area, you could make one side rise significantly higher than the other, while the two remain perfectly balanced? The objects on the high side could fall to the low side, while the energy initially used to create the offset could be very small, applied over time. But the transitory energy spike of the falling object could be much higher.

Higher and lower atmospheric pressure can cause winds to blow on a sail, or lift a particular aerofoil profile against gravity with forward motion. The thrust to attain the forward motion need not equal the thrust needed to hold an object in midair. It only needs to overcome the air resistance to move forward to generate the lift. How much energy has to be invested while on a sailboat to catch the wind, or a glider to rise on a thermal updraft? NONE!

A standing wave is best thought of as a significant increase/decrease in DENSITY of matter (acoustical energy in a gas) or field energy in a particular place. As with a magnetic field in a solid, there is a POINT OF SATURATION for most effects, beyond which you get compression or rejection of further density, such as a state change between phases of matter, or magnetic saturation within ferrous metals. If the density of SPACE ITSELF can be modified by making it looser ahead and thicker behind, one will FALL forward and be PUSHED from behind, and ride on a node of normal space density just as shown in Alcubierre’s gradient diagram. As if on a surf board…

If I had a prototype of the drive chamber in question, I would place a protrusion from the inside of the chamber ahead or behind the standing wave’s highest energy density, and tie the protrusion to the side wall of the chamber, perpendicular to the intended thrust line of the effect. This would give more of the material in the chamber a chance to FALL along the gradient of possibly space distorting energy. The equal and opposite distortion may occur in a torus or diffuse field along many vectors away from that of thrust, and thus cancel, without violating any existing laws. In the human gut, the analogous phenomenon is referred to as peristalsis. Low pressure ahead, high pressure behind.

The laws of thermodynamics and inertial conservation are safe from the heat pump. All of the human devices I have mentioned and many others besides exploit existing gradients in the surrounding environment, often not of our creation. How can you induce a current or flow through a VACUUM though? How can you discuss the DENSITY of a VACCUUM? Doesn’t that call into question whether we truly understand what a VACCUM is?

Exactly…

    SpaceCadet · April 6, 2016 at 16:16

    For the record, its “vacuum”. Not “vaccum”, nor “vaccuum”. I got a little excited, and spell check ignores ALL CAPS emphasis style.

    :p

Konstantin · January 3, 2016 at 04:23

Wouldn it be funny if they build the drive, put it on a ship, fly it into orbit, engage the drive, and the warp bubble just stands there and doesn’t move the ship. Space in front is being contracted; space behind is being expanded, and space inside is flat, and all of it is perfectly still; nothing more than a very expensive orbital module

    Walter Martinez · December 16, 2017 at 01:41

    It won’t just stand there it is a push pull type thing. It’s simple really. The problem is the power needed and the Radiation danger to the occupants.

Koustave · April 6, 2015 at 16:04

As Sheldon Cooper Would Say….. “Its Hokum”

Brian · March 17, 2015 at 06:35

Never say never. The speed limit of light does not apply to space-time. Expansion shows that to be the case. If the math works, the math works.

George Skokos · February 26, 2015 at 10:15

You cannot travel at a higher velocity than the speed of light (Earth-Time), but you can increase the rate of time near a spacecraft to enable the spacecraft to appear to travel faster than light as compared to Earth time. Forget Hyper-Space, the solution is with Hyper-Time! Yes, Astronauts will age more quickly aboard such a Hyper-Time ship, however, there is a solution to that too…accelerate the spacecraft toward the speed-of-light so that time slows down for the spacecraft and it’s astronauts…
Theory of Accelerated Space Time

Michael · February 20, 2015 at 08:03

You said negative energy is an impossible that does not exist. How do you know that it is impossible? Just because something hasn’t been achieved yet does not mean it is impossible. And quantum mechanics does allow for the existence of negative energy. It’s one thing to be skeptical but still should keep an open mind.

    admin · February 24, 2015 at 14:38

    Hi Michael, I’m fairly sure that creating worthwhile amounts of negative energy is impossible for several reasons. Measureable quantities of negative energy have never been observed (so it does not occur in nature). Negative energy would violate the laws of thermodynamics which are pretty fundamental.

    Physicist Lawrence H. Ford has described how if negative energy was generated there would be pretty restrictive rules on how much was made and generated, see Negative Energy, Wormholes and Warpdrive by Lawrence H. Ford and Thomas A. Roman, Scientific American, January 2000.

    Basically, science as we know it says negative energy is as real as magic, psychic powers or dragons. I am not depending on any of these to take us to the stars.

Adam Fletcher · February 15, 2015 at 22:41

The project is currently at the “concept phase” if the concept is proven, this may become a larger peace. No unproven concept goes all balls out immediately!

At least Nasa have been open enough to let the public know about this small project, the concept is being taken seriously by Nasa.

Although Nassa are not yet building a scalable warp drive, they are investing money and time into this. I find you post an title very negative. The are table starts with “Noo they’re not!” When actually, yes they are investing in a project, that’s end goal is to develop a warp drive that bends space space time.

White works with Nasa on new concepts and tries to help get them into practice, such as Q thrusters, which are going live this year.

I hope that one day the warp buble goes live, and this blog is another “The world is flat”

Jason · February 11, 2015 at 06:16

So i take you don’t believe the government keeps its top secret advances to themselves. Or that you don’t believe in the roswell crashes back in the 40’s (didnt bother looking for exact date just estimated). You may not realize but our government has also had cell phones long before they were released to the public. Who’s to say that we really dont already have the technology. The cold fusion thing we could already have but it will NEVER be released because it would crash the economy majorly. My main point is that the government already has all sorts of technology that we can only guess at and they don’t release that technology until it’s outdated for them and then they release it to the public.

    admin · February 11, 2015 at 09:50

    Dear Jason, thank you for your comments although I find them a little baffling as I do not see how they relate to the subject of the article.

    Of course governments keep secrets, where do I say they do not? Although it has nothing to do with the topic of this article, I’d love a link to a source for

    You may not realize but our government has also had cell phones long before they were released to the public.

      Jason · February 12, 2015 at 18:35

      My point of stating all that was to state the fact the could very well be in development of a warp drive or something like it or we could actually already have and have all sorts of bases all over by now. We will not know what they have done with that technology if we really do already have it. Sorry if that was a little confusing as to how it related. Btw you link didn’t show up.

        admin · February 12, 2015 at 20:41

        I’m sorry but which link do you mean?

    Konstantin · January 3, 2016 at 04:41

    The “Government” has a colony of space vixens on a secret planet inside the Earth, they ride dragons to work, and proably also have discovered (other interesting stuff). Who’s to say!? They couldn’t keep the lid on Watergate but they have had Aliens tucked away for the last 50 years.
    If the “government” keeps secrets it’s to hide mistakes and transgressions: not discoveries and scientific advances.

    (Edited to keep content family friendly – ADMIN)

tonyon · January 26, 2015 at 16:37

…need hyperluminal SPEED and TIME of the Immortals (3D Bioprinting…Telomerase…) to conquer SPACE…

Pepe Serranillo · December 29, 2014 at 18:26

Coli, Colin, my little dear, good old Colin! Only the possibility that White achieve the most minimum succes does make you feel uncomfortable, doesn’t it?
You are hoping NASA to cut the funds, so you and your fellas can laugh at this poor, fool man, admit it sincerely!
You’ll follow this research, just for laughing at the end of White and his ridiculous dream.LOL.

    admin · January 5, 2015 at 09:41

    Hi Pepe, I think you are being rather unfair here. The purpose of the article is to correct the false impression that NASA is actually building a faster than light starship (I would love this to be true) and show that instead the truth is that some low key lab experiments are being done.

    Do you think NASA is actually building a faster than light starship?

      John · June 3, 2015 at 04:43

      Honestly I will say yes, eventually.
      All though I am not the same person to whom you replied to, I am simply saying my opinion.

        admin · June 3, 2015 at 08:27

        Thanks John, but what do you base your opinion on?

a.swage · November 29, 2014 at 05:37

Mark tomion master Electrical Engineer built dimmsional drive Saucers was built from 1989 October to march 1992 for a contract to built a fleet of warp dimmsional drive . Saucers nasa.gov ! Mark tomion is master Electrical Engineer in Quantum mechanics physics technology’s and Author of stardrive engineering manual Book from the space craft Saucer and published his in sciences commuity and Electical engineering community in year 2000 ! Mark tomion built Quantum mechanics physics technology’s !

The saucer was 100 feet around diameter and 7 feet tall in height and saucer steel silver color and has Electrical magnetic warp dimmsional drive for propulsion and lift and thrust antigavity ! The testing with nasa engineers views the saucer did total of 100 miles around trip in 1.5 minute or in 90 second ! the problem with nasa gov is they do not have any engineering with Quantum mechanics physics technology’s No educational background or no understanding ! It was trying explain like try teach nasa engineers like 9th grader in sciences Quantum physics !

Mark tomion had saucer built and test and formulas done march 1992 year way before miguel abcuberie came with his of theroy star trek warpdrive ! Mark tomion master Electrical Engineer in Quantum mechanics physics technology’s is list on web site stardrive engineering manual Book in centibal web page ! If you ask how i know this infomation i was mark tomion co designer and advanced machine built. Alex swage and 20 years experience as Designer and builter advanced computers machinery ! I was all thought every stage of builting and talking nasa engineers and director of nasa in Florida in cape carnival in1992 year

Steve · September 5, 2014 at 15:24

Its amazing that everytime a group tries to move science forward theres always those naysayers that sit on the sidelines saying its impossible. Like fight, landing on the moon. Articles like this are very tired and history is littered with them.

    admin · September 8, 2014 at 08:32

    I think I’m clear in the article that I’d like this to be real, but the theory behind the research is very speculative. The only reason this story has received the attention it has is because of the NASA link.

    By the way you ought read up mistaken scientific discoveries like N-rays, polywater, cold fusion. “Naysayers” as you describe them are essential to avoid science running into a cul de sac.

      Bjorn Veerman · November 23, 2014 at 07:14

      The theory behind spillting the atom was also just a theory and speculation. (mind you in the early 30’s)
      They didn’t know if it was possible at all.
      Like breaking the sound barrier, all experts said that if you reached Mach 0.99 you will hit a solid wall of air and the airplain will disintegrate. (which still happens if you have a structural problem which sometimes happens)

      The greatest breakthroughs are done by physical experimenting and daring to do what others “believe” cant be done.

      Between 1850 and say 1980 the greatest breakthroughs were mere side effects of experiments or excidental discoveries.

      And Einstein hasn’t been right all the time, his theories have been adjusted in the course of time, but till this day most of his theories have stood ground (although some slightly moved some)

        admin · November 24, 2014 at 09:16

        Hi Bjorn, thanks for your comment. I’d appreciate a citation for

        all experts said that if you reached Mach 0.99 you will hit a solid wall of air and the airplain will disintegrate

        Surely the first supersonic vehicles were designed and built by “experts”, not by outsiders to aerodynamics, propulsion and structural engineering.

        Just to repeat my point, I’m happy that this research is being done but making grandiose claims about where is will lead in the near future is counter-productive.

Aaron · August 22, 2014 at 02:48

(Rudeness removed -ADMIN) Wish I could get back the time I spent reading this. Sir know it all. Lol must bother you that people are excited about the Possibility of warp drive. The imagination is what makes the reality.

Robin Moss · August 18, 2014 at 11:28

(Rudeness deleted- ADMIN)

Warp speed or the ability to travel at warp speed is only a matter of when not if.

As with time travel, sadly the human race probably has 200 or 300 years more to go before these become reality.

I would be only too happy to discuss your mis-concepts.

    admin · August 18, 2014 at 12:10

    I’m always happy to discuss science, but ask yourself, is opening a request for dialogue with an insult really the best way to be taken seriously?

    Please don’t do that again if you want your comments to appear here.

    Joe · September 12, 2014 at 15:42

    Combine this with the apparent regression in human intelligence as AI begins to supercede us, perhaps we will never see this. Robots on the other hand, may figure it out in 200 years. 😉

      RajivSK · December 27, 2014 at 15:29

      As a matter of fact, Robots, or any form of AI never need to invent travel at the speed of light as the digital world already travels at that speed right now.

    John · June 3, 2015 at 04:34

    Thank you robin, I was literally screaming at the guy who wrote this article, because he was wrong on some parts about how it will never happen, it is not a matter of if, it IS when!

Diprotodonald · July 9, 2014 at 08:51

Hm. NTRs and Fusion drive always had more cred (for at least our immediate needs) anyway. Still, from little acorns……..

Adam · June 18, 2014 at 20:52

Thanks for linking back to my blog – your readers are welcome to follow the links. Harold White is a member, like myself, of “Icarus Interstellar”, which includes several other warp-drive researchers (Richard Obousy, Eric Davis to name a couple) and provides a venue for sharing ideas as well as helping promote interstellar research. While our main focus is more conventional fusion & microwave-sail propulsion, we also have an Advanced Propulsion team, XP4, which you might notice as “IIXP4” in the markings on Rademaker’s Warp-Drive ship. If Rademaker’s depictions inspire a new generation of physicists and engineers, like the “Enterprise” did years ago, then it’ll have done its job.

anon · June 13, 2014 at 17:31

Paragraph 3, sentence 2, you have “ahead” twice but I think the second one is supposed to be “behind”

    admin · June 14, 2014 at 22:05

    Doh! Thanks, I’ve fixed it.

    michael lewendon · September 20, 2015 at 01:38

    Dear Michael, I am sorry but I am not publishing your comment as 1) It is not relevant to the the subject of this article and 2) It is extremely long (longer than the article itself). Thank you for your understanding.

      michael lewendon · November 8, 2015 at 21:39

      WHAT CAN I SAY I THOUGHT I WAS REPORTING A UFO SIGHTING HOW WAS I TO KNOW, YOU SHOULD HAVE PICKED THIS UP AS ITS IN YOUR FIELD THIS UFO SIGHTING WAS WITHIN A WORMHOLE TYPE TUBE HOW ELSE WAS THERE NO EVIDENCE? YOU KNOW WHAT TYPE OF TRAIL THIS WOULD HAVE LEFT BEHIND AND WHERE? YOU GOT A DATE A TIME A PLACE, NOW WHERE WOULD IT HAVE SHOWN A DISTORTION,
      NOT RELEVANT YOU SAY, I SAY YOU LOOKED AT THIS AS I SAID A UFO SIGHTING RATHER THAN WHAT IT COULD HAVE BEEN? YOU AND EVERYONE ELSE, STILL CAN’T SEE YOU HAVING THE COURAGE TO TELL READERS YOU MISSED THE POSSIBLE TIME WARP EVENT HERE.
      HEY SORRY MATE, JUST CAN’T GET ANY ONE TO LOOK FOR EVIDENCE AND WITH MY ATTITUDE DOUBT IF I EVER WILL,
      ONCE AGAIN SORRY,

      (Edited for language- ADMIN)

        admin · November 9, 2015 at 10:06

        Dear Michael, I am sorry but I am not publishing your other very long comments . It does not matter how sure you are of the time and location of your sighting, there is is no way to extract any scientific evidence from a one off event observed 11 years ago recorded only as eye witness testimony. I am sorry but you must understand this.

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