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Space Transportation Science

Warp Drive Might Be Less Impossible Than Previously Thought 867

Posted by Unknown Lamer
from the warp-seven-engage dept.
runner_one writes "Harold 'Sonny' White of NASA's Johnson Space Center said Friday (Sept. 14) at the 100 Year Starship Symposium that warp drive might be easier to achieve than earlier thought. The first concept for a real-life warp drive was suggested in 1994 by Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre, however subsequent calculations found that such a device would require prohibitive amounts of energy, studies estimated the warp drive would require a minimum amount of energy about equal to the mass-energy of the planet Jupiter. But recent calculations showed that if the shape of the ring encircling the spacecraft was adjusted into more of a rounded donut, as opposed to a flat ring the warp drive could be powered by the energy of a mass as small as 500 kg. Furthermore, if the intensity of the space warps can be oscillated over time, the energy required is reduced even more."
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Warp Drive Might Be Less Impossible Than Previously Thought

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  • by TorrentFox (1046862) on Monday September 17, 2012 @07:11PM (#41368913)

    Eject the core!

  • by Cyphase (907627) on Monday September 17, 2012 @07:12PM (#41368927) Homepage

    To all those anti-warp drive downers.. HAHAHAHA!!!!

    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 17, 2012 @07:26PM (#41369127)

      The energy argument was completely secondary. The main objection (which is barely touched on in the article) is that there are some fairly strong proofs that you need exotic matter in order to actually implement the drive. My understanding is that the space-time configuration necessary for the warp drive has been shown to be impossible to create without exotic matter.

      Exotic matter, by definition, requires violations of the known laws of physics. In other words, the currently accepted laws of physics indicate that you need to break the laws of physics to make the drive work. This means that while the results in this article might have alleviated some secondary concerns, the main problem with this type of warp drive is still completely unaddressed.

      Of course, there are some people who will waive their hands and say "abracadabra - QUANTUM MECHANICS" to try and get around the exotic matter problem. But you are now trying to combine general relativity with quantum effects, so there isn't any firm foundation to base your arguments on.

      • by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 17, 2012 @07:48PM (#41369365)

        there are some people who will waive their hands

        This I have to see.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        The negative mass (energy) required is not expressly forbidden. We've just never seen anything with such a property and the existence of it would raise some interesting questions. But you could say that about a lot of things that have come out of particle physics....

        • by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 17, 2012 @08:10PM (#41369539)

          We have seen this effect, just not in regular solid matter; we can see it in certain configurations of regular matter, such as the Casimir effect. So it's not *real* exotic matter, but it does show that negative energy is technically an observable thing. How exactly we can make use of that to do the necessary space-folding is still unknown. It's an incredibly hard, potentially impossible engineering problem, but impossible engineering problems have a tendency to become trivial given enough time and motivation.

          • by jd2112 (1535857) on Monday September 17, 2012 @09:43PM (#41370215)

            We have seen this effect, just not in regular solid matter; we can see it in certain configurations of regular matter, such as the Casimir effect.

            Oh let the sun beat down upon my face, stars to fill my dream
            I am a traveler of both time and space, to be where I have been...

          • by Jane Q. Public (1010737) on Monday September 17, 2012 @10:41PM (#41370615)

            "... we can see it in certain configurations of regular matter, such as the Casimir effect."

            What does the Casimir effect have to do with it? That is merely a demonstration of so-called "zero point" fluctuations. It isn't "negative energy", except to the extent that you have particles and their counter-particles spontaneously arising at the same time. Even so, in the case of the Casimir effect it exerts a net positive energy on the affected mass.

            • by khayman80 (824400) * on Tuesday September 18, 2012 @12:54AM (#41371319) Homepage Journal

              "Exotic matter, by definition, requires violations of the known laws of physics."

              No, it doesn't. Antimatter is one valid type of "exotic matter", and it has been manufactured in labs in various (small) amounts for many decades now, without a physics violation in sight.

              Antimatter certainly isn't common, but it's not "exotic matter" [wikipedia.org]. Stable wormholes and the Alcubierre drive require using exotic matter that has negative mass-energy, which would violate the weak energy condition [wikipedia.org].

              "... we can see it in certain configurations of regular matter, such as the Casimir effect."

              What does the Casimir effect have to do with it? That is merely a demonstration of so-called "zero point" fluctuations. It isn't "negative energy", except to the extent that you have particles and their counter-particles spontaneously arising at the same time. Even so, in the case of the Casimir effect it exerts a net positive energy on the affected mass.

              The Casimir effect is the best known example of negative energy [wikipedia.org]:

              Morris, Thorne and Yurtsever[4] pointed out that the quantum mechanics of the Casimir effect can be used to produce a locally mass-negative region of space-time. In this article, and subsequent work by others, they showed that negative matter could be used to stabilize a wormhole.

            • by khayman80 (824400) * on Tuesday September 18, 2012 @05:19AM (#41372379) Homepage Journal

              What does the Casimir effect have to do with it? That is merely a demonstration of so-called "zero point" fluctuations. It isn't "negative energy", except to the extent that you have particles and their counter-particles spontaneously arising at the same time. Even so, in the case of the Casimir effect it exerts a net positive energy on the affected mass.

              The AC is terse but correct. The Casimir effect [wikipedia.org] occurs because vacuum fluctuations are suppressed between two parallel conducting plates that are placed very close together. Maxwell's equations force E=0 inside perfect conductors, which means that vacuum fluctuations with a half-wavelength longer than the separation between the plates can't exist between the plates. Because they exist in the vacuum outside the plates (which is defined to have zero energy), the energy inside the plates is actually negative. The attractive force implies negative energy between the plates because force is the negative gradient [wikipedia.org] of potential energy.

      • by nine-times (778537) <nine.times@gmail.com> on Monday September 17, 2012 @08:24PM (#41369673) Homepage

        In fairness, the claim that it "might be less impossible than previously thought" may be accurate. It could be less impossible and still be pretty much impossible. And I don't think anyone believed that a warp drive could be built without violating some of our current laws of physics.

      • by mosb1000 (710161) <mosb1000@mac.com> on Monday September 17, 2012 @08:29PM (#41369703)

        People have used metamaterials to achieve results that seem to violate the laws of physics (such as materials having a negative refractive index [wikipedia.org]). Speculating that such an exotic material could be produced is not hand waving. Just because we don't know how to do something today doesn't mean we'll never figure it out.

        And no, the energy argument was not secondary. Before you could argue that even if we could make the materials necessary it would require a prohibitive amount of energy to work. Now the argument is only about the materials needed.

      • by erice (13380) on Monday September 17, 2012 @08:33PM (#41369735) Homepage

        Exotic matter, by definition, requires violations of the known laws of physics.

        That's a very peculiar definition of exotic mater you have there. Elsewhere, "exotic matter" generally refers to matter of a type neither observed nor predicted by current theory. No violation of known physics is implied. It is just that we haven't seen any and there is no particular reason to believe that it exists.

        The particular flavor of exotic matter needed for the warp drive is "negative" matter. Negative matter has negative energy. Unlike antimatter where antimatter + matter = lots of energy, negative matter + matter = nothing.

        'Last I heard, running the usual math through with negative matter results in some situations that don't make a lot of sense. They aren't necessarily wrong or forbidden, we just don't know what they mean. Math is like that sometimes.

      • by Cyberax (705495) on Monday September 17, 2012 @09:09PM (#41370019)
        There are no proofs that it's impossible to create a warp drive without exotic matter. It's just that we know several configurations of exotic matter that can produce warp drives.
      • by Jane Q. Public (1010737) on Monday September 17, 2012 @10:21PM (#41370479)

        "Exotic matter, by definition, requires violations of the known laws of physics."

        No, it doesn't. Antimatter is one valid type of "exotic matter", and it has been manufactured in labs in various (small) amounts for many decades now, without a physics violation in sight.

        Further, there is nothing theoretically preventing us from manufacturing it in fairly large quantities, as long as it can be kept in magnetic containment.

  • by BitterOak (537666) on Monday September 17, 2012 @07:13PM (#41368941)
    I'll believe it when I see time travelers from the future who have used their warp drives and FTL travel to come backward in time to tell us about it. (According to special relativity, the ability to travel faster than light is equivalent to the ability to travel backwards in time.)
    • by CajunArson (465943) on Monday September 17, 2012 @07:15PM (#41368975) Journal

      If this thing truly "warps" space (no idea if it does) you could travel at effectively faster than light speed through a vacuum while never actually accelerating past the speed of light doing it...

      • by Your.Master (1088569) on Monday September 17, 2012 @07:58PM (#41369449)

        Here is a relatively understandable explanation of why beating a photon to its destination implies time travel, even if you don't locally travel faster than light: http://www.theculture.org/rich/sharpblue/archives/000089.html [theculture.org]. Basically, if you can pass stuff along at FTL between people at sub-light speed, and those people are moving relative to one another, you can send stuff into the past.

        There *are* workarounds. A fairly comprehensive list is here:

        http://www.physicsguy.com/ftl/html/FTL_part4.html#subsec:specialframe [physicsguy.com]

        They're all kind of about relativity being wrong, and there's no evidence any of these are true. Mostly wishful thinking on the part of people that want to believe we can have an interstellar civilization but can't quite let go of causality. Briefly:

        1. FTL takes you to a parallel universe. So if you try to kill your past self, there's no paradox and you keep living because it was actually your counterpart in a different universe.
        2. There's some unknown physics that would prevent using FTL to violate causality. So even though there's technically time travel in some sense, it has no practical use and therefore you could say it isn't "really" time travel.
        3. A specific case of the above: perhaps the act of travelling FTL prevents any other FTL travel within a certain spacetime "radius".
        4. Violate relativity by having a "true" frame of reference with a "true" sequence of events. All FTL takes place in that context and is theoretically unlimited in speed. Within any other frame of reference, it looks like a speed limit, but still possibly faster than light speed.

        • by Drishmung (458368)
          At the quantum level, Feynman treated anti-particles as being particles traveling backwards in time. However, point 2 (or something like it) does in fact seem to hold sway, as set out by the Temporal Consistency Principle and formalized as the Novikov self-consistency principle [wikipedia.org].

          Now, bashing quantum theory and general relativity together into a consistent whole is something that we've not managed to do yet. Both seem to be true in their respective domains---(almost magisteria to listen to the debates) yet th

    • by Idbar (1034346)
      You non-believer. Don't you see that now it's not impossible, but perhaps just 99% impossible? You'll see!
    • by roc97007 (608802)

      Maybe they don't want to talk to us.

      • by aled (228417)

        of couse not! that would create a paradox that can destroy your post!

    • by shentino (1139071)

      Temporal prime directive.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 17, 2012 @09:06PM (#41369987)

      You can't go backwards in time using FTL. You can violate Causality, but that's not the same thing and isn't actually a big deal.

      Picture it this way: You have a ship that can travel to Jupiter in 5 seconds. The method doesn't matter. You leave Earth, go to Jupiter, come back faster than light, and it's still 10 seconds into the Earth's future. You did not go so fast that you ended up in the Earth's past. You did not return while they were still counting down to your launch.

      But what DID happen is that you outpaced your own light cone [wikipedia.org].

      Since relativistic observers cannot exceed the speed of light themselves, and events can only propagate at the speed of light, then for all events, all relativistic observers will see the cause before the effect. That's Causality. But a lot of people get caught up on the whole "no absolute reference" thing and they take it a bit too far. Once something happens, it's done. You might not know about it yet, but it already happened and there's nothing you can do about it.

      So what would it mean if we could outpace our own light cone? Not much, actually.

      You could see the effect of some events before the cause, but you wouldn't be able to do anything about it. The cause already happened. The cause has its own light cone, but you're coming at it from a weird angle, so you haven't run into it yet. You might not even see the cause until you slow down and let it catch up to you "naturally".

      Similarly, some observers would see you as moving backwards, but that's just because you're moving faster than the photons you're emitting. Anyone who saw that wouldn't be able to do anything about it, though, even if they could travel instantaneously. You've already long since passed them. If they could travel faster than you, they might be able to intercept you in the future by plotting out your course from what they observered, but they wouldn't actually be able to use what they saw to affect the past. Like if I found a blog post from you that said you were hiking from DC to Hollywood starting a week ago, so I figure out how long that will take and board a plane to meet you there. The Universe wouldn't much care.

  • by angel'o'sphere (80593) on Monday September 17, 2012 @07:14PM (#41368969) Homepage Journal

    BTW: what is exactly ment with: warp drive could be powered by the energy of a mass as small as 500 kg In what time frame? I guess if you "annihilate" so much mass instantly ... you get indeed warped pretty hefty.

    • It's the whole E=MC^2 Mass-energy equivalence bit. For comparison:

      E / m = c2 = (299,792,458 m/s)2 = 89,875,517,873,681,764 J/kg (9.0 × 1016 joules per kilogram).
      So the energy equivalent of one gram (1/1000 of a kilogram) of mass is equivalent to:
      89.9 terajoules
      25.0 million kilowatt-hours (25 GWh)
      21.5 billion kilocalories (21 Tcal)
      85.2 billion BTUs
      or to the energy released by combustion of the following:
      21.5 kilotons of TNT-equivalent energy (21 kt)
      568,000 US gallons of automotive gasoline

  • by hawguy (1600213) on Monday September 17, 2012 @07:16PM (#41368991)

    Does this theory at all reduce the chance that when the Warp Drive ship arrives at its destination that it will emit a huge gamma ray burst [universetoday.com]? This planet destroying side effect would sure put a damper on any kind of arrival party for the warp drive ship.

  • by TWX (665546) on Monday September 17, 2012 @07:17PM (#41369001)
    I thought that it was a cup of tea, not a donut, that led to FTL travel...
  • Less impossible? (Score:4, Informative)

    by twotacocombo (1529393) on Monday September 17, 2012 @07:29PM (#41369159)
    Even a little bit impossible is still entirely impossible in my book.
  • by Confusedent (1913038) on Monday September 17, 2012 @07:35PM (#41369231)
    That's great news, but there were a number of other difficulties [wikipedia.org] with the Alcubierre drive, iirc. I don't see how this gets around any of those, like the spacetime "bubble" becoming filled with lethal radiation or the inability to create a bubble with a pre-existing non-superluminal mass inside it.
  • by Type44Q (1233630) on Monday September 17, 2012 @07:35PM (#41369233)
    So, more possible... but still impossible. Alrighty, then. :)
  • by pubwvj (1045960) on Monday September 17, 2012 @07:41PM (#41369285)

    I love it when people say things are impossible. Then they go whizzing backwards into forgotten history as the impossible becomes the norm. Tomorrow will be like today. The future will be surprising.

  • by NEDHead (1651195) on Monday September 17, 2012 @07:43PM (#41369303)

    The power requirements for warp drive will diminish by a factor of 23 every year.

  • by Ralph Spoilsport (673134) on Monday September 17, 2012 @07:54PM (#41369421) Journal
    There's about 1 hydrogen atom / proton per cubic meter. Even at sub-c speeds, they create seriously radioactive friction. And running into a grain of sand at some % of c would have the effect of a large bomb. So, you not only have to warp space, you have to move the matter IN the space, and do it at >c velocity. Since matter can't move >c, you can't get the protons and occasional neutrons and sand grains and other interstellar detritus out of the way. A grain of sand hitting anything at 10c would be catastrophic, and within a few hours of colliding with the interplanetary and interstellar medium would turn the ship into a glowing radioactive dead thing.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 17, 2012 @08:51PM (#41369883)

    White and his colleagues have begun experimenting with a mini version of the warp drive in their laboratory. ...
    "We're trying to see if we can generate a very tiny instance of this in a tabletop experiment, to try to perturb space-time by one part in 10 million," White said.

    I can imagine how it might go:

    White: "More ... power! We ... have ... got ... to get that ... table up ... to ... warp factor ... 0.00000001!"

    Technician: "Aye, professor, but I'm already given 'er all the power we've got. She can' take no more"

    Grad student: "My calculations indicate a slim chance of success if we reverse the polarity."

    Technician: "I canno' do it. You'll blow the whole rig fo' sure!"

    White: "We ... have ... no other ... choice. Reverse ... polarity!"

    (All occupants of lab now alternately grab railings to the left then to the right.)

  • by skelly33 (891182) on Monday September 17, 2012 @08:52PM (#41369889)
    The final shape should actually end up looking not like a toroid, but a disc, or... "flying saucer" if you will. The absolute first thing we should do with them though is send them back in time and play mind tricks on generations past, otherwise we'll miss many decades of inspiration on Hollywood films which ultimately serve to desensitize the populace towards first contact.
  • by gmuslera (3436) on Tuesday September 18, 2012 @01:15AM (#41371417) Homepage Journal
    Will be cheaper to use Jupiter than paying the Apple lawsuit for using a Star Trek based device with rounded corners

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