How the warp drive, the enchanting technology from Star Trek, is getting closer

How the warp drive, the enchanting technology from Star Trek, is getting closer

Thanks to the warp-driven, the Star Trek spaceship Enterprise races through the unimaginably large universe.

It goes carelessly, in the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation† When Captain Jean-Luc Picard gave the command so familiar to the viewer ‘become involved!‘, the surrounding stars extend to stripes, and the spaceship Enterprise races at chain speed into the depths of the cosmos, faster than light.

Warp drive is an enchanting future technology from Star Trekuniverse, which since the first episode in 1966 now has ten – soon eleven – TV series and thirteen feature films. And in all the series and movies, characters with spaceships explore the galaxy, travel from planet to planet and make contact with a motley crew of aliens.

‘As a kid, I used to be huge Star Trek-fan, “says physicist Erik Lentz, from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in the USA. There he researches esoteric physics phenomena such as dark matter and quantum information, but write his name on Google and the first search proposal is about the research he does in his spare time: Warp-driven.

‘As I got older, I realized that not everything matters Star Trek will ever exist, “he says.” But the warp drive would not let go of me. “Shortly after the first corona lockdown, this resulted in a professional release that would be the starting signal for a wonderful acceleration in our knowledge of this fictional future engine.

exotic substance

That of all technologies out there Star Trek it is not surprising that the warp drive attracts attention. Without it, history would be impossible. The universe is bizarre, unimaginable, insanely large. Although one ‘just’ wants to visit the next star, the enormous cosmic distances throw up an almost impregnable barrier.

The next star is Proxima Centauri, 4.5 light-years away, a distance that light takes 4.5 years. Light flies at the cosmic maximum speed, so any other method takes longer. With the fastest space probe ever built, the long journey through the gaping void between the stars will take you about eight thousand years. Who, as in Star Trekwant to explore our entire galaxy (diameter: 105 thousand light-years, containing an estimated one hundred thousand million stars), then face an impossible task.

It is therefore logical that science fiction makers are looking for a way out. The most popular solution? Do not fly ultra-fast – faster than light is physically impossible – but shorten the distance. The warp drive does this by distorting space and time. Fiction, of course. Until the physicist Miguel Alcubierre suddenly realized at the end of the last century that such an engine was really possible.

less distance

In 1994, Alcubierre saw an episode of The next generation at a time when he was doing PhD research in as yet unknown corners of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, where heavy masses can curve space and time. And then Alcubierre picked up a piece of paper, did the math, and laid the foundation for an article that appeared in the trade magazine later that year. Classic and quantum gravity

In it, he describes how to compress space and time in front of a spaceship and stretch it again behind the ship, so that one has to travel far less distance to the desired destination securely locked in what he calls a warp bubble.

Building such an Alcubierre drive in practice is only extremely difficult. It is not possible to curve the space so strongly with ‘normal’ mass, but must be done with exotic fabric, with a negative gravity. And we do not know yet. It makes the warp drive something Star Trekfan can dream of, but it is impossible in any practical sense at the moment.

Dozens more warp drive publications would follow in the decades that followed. It also remained theoretical exercises, thought experiments playing with the formulas of the theory of relativity, in search of new insights. But the need for exotic drugs remained. Until now.

Lockdown months

“I first read Alcubierre’s professional article as a teenager,” Lentz says. ‘I found it fascinating, even though I did not understand much of it at the time.’ Lentz continued to read warp drive publications long after he worked as a physicist. And when he had some time to spare in the lockdown months, he returned to his oldest fascination. And then realized that everyone had overlooked something.

“For his article, Alcubierre had looked at the simplest possible solution for the formulas of the theory of relativity,” says Lentz. That solution yielded the Alcubierre drive, a chain bubble backed up by a huge amount of negative gravity. ‘It was striking that the mass was not physically located in the places where the curvature of the space was to be greatest.’

Model of the Alcubierre drive.  The blue area represents compressed space, the red area represents stretched space.  Statue of Harold White / Nasa

Model of the Alcubierre drive. The blue area represents compressed space, the red area represents stretched space.Statue of Harold White / Nasa

Lentz decided to try something more exotic mathematics and saw that he could also solve the formulas with it. The biggest difference? In the chain bubble, which he got as a solution, the mass was the places where the curvature was greatest. And more importantly: you can make his bubble with ordinary everyday fabric. He did not need a gram of exotic stuff. “I was especially surprised that no one had ever tried this before.”

Play of distorting light

Anyone in a chain bubble à la Lentz does not see the striped stars from the window of a spaceship Star Trek† ‘At the Albubierre chain bubble you can already see the stars deforming. And in my solution, the distortion is even more complex, space-time curves with a peak here and a valley there. I’ve never figured out exactly what it looks like, but it does produce a complex game of light distortion ‘.

Although Lentz’s engine was already much more practical than the Alcubierres’, you still need a lot of mass for it. But it might also be better when cosmologist Lavinia Heisenberg (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) ran with the idea and wrote a follow-up article. In it, she showed that the Lentz engine also works with less mass. A lot a thousand times less than the sun should be sufficient. It’s still an overwhelming amount of kilos, but it nonetheless fueled the hope that the warp-drive one day, in a Star Trekas the future, could really exist.

Lentz was also not the only one who had started tinkering with warp drives during the lockdown. Physicist Alexey Bobrick and entrepreneur Gianni Martire published an article more or less simultaneously in the same magazine that went a little less far than Lentz’s. They calculated that a warp drive does not need exotic substance if it does not fly faster than light. Or more precisely, when it does not shorten the distance so much that you reach your destination before a ray of light arrives.

In addition, they revealed a new problem. According to them, a spaceship, even though it was neatly embedded in a chain bubble, would not move by itself. So even in a chain bubble you need a motor. However, it turns out to be so difficult that you – effectively – can never break the speed of light, they write. A practical problem that Lentz believes will prove to be solved in the future.

Storm of attention

The releases of Lentz and Bobrick led to a storm of attention, especially in the United States. From popular science media like Scientific American and Physics world to tabloids as New York PostSuddenly, everyone seemed to be talking about warp drives. On the reddit discussion forum, a thread about Lentz’s research even received nearly three thousand responses. “I briefly allowed myself to believe that we are on schedule for Zefram Cochrane’s flight, and for a moment I was intensely happy,” said one commenter. Star Trekcanon discovered the warp drive in 2063. “Who else feels like they were born 300 years premature?” wrote another.

Opinions are divided on whether it will ever happen in 2063, three hundred years from now or later. A trio of physicists even believe that any warp drive, including Lentz’s, violates an unwritten energy rule, they wrote recently in a preliminary publication. Lentz, moreover, believes that his colleagues’ criticism of his idea does not hold.

For the time being, therefore, everyone can continue to dream that the door to it final limitlike Star Trek it says so beautifully, ever goes awry. That we will finally step over the last threshold into the deep cosmos, and travel to the distant worlds and strange civilizations that the stories have promised us.

Did scientists ‘accidentally’ create a real chain bubble in the laboratory?

And then there’s this. In early December, the website appeared Debriefs Suddenly came the news that Harold White, affiliated with NASA, had produced a real chain bubble in the lab. “Scientists accidentally discover the world’s first warp bubble,” read the headline, which flew over the Internet at lightning speed. “What we’ve discovered is a real, albeit modest, chain bubble,” site discoverer White quotes as saying.

But physicists who dived into the underlying scientific article concluded that it does not support this conclusion. “I wrote a book about warp drives and no, we did not accidentally create a warp bubble,” reads the headline of a critical piece by astronomer and author Ethan Siegel.

“This is theoretical research, so no real, physical warp bubble has been created,” says physicist Erik Lentz, who is interested in White’s work. “It just seems very difficult to do what they describe in the article.”

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