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Scientists Believe Light Speed Travel Is Possible. Here’s How.

Oct 05, 2023

A functioning warp drive would allow humans to reach the far ends of the cosmos in the blink of an eye.

In late 2020, physicist Harold “Sonny” White, PhD, research director of the nonprofit Limitless Space Institute, noticed something peculiar—and familiar—in a circular pattern of data plots generated by a recent experiment.

White and his team in LSI’s Houston laboratory were conducting research for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, and had set up these particular experiments to study the energy densities within Casimir cavities, the mysterious spaces between microscopic metal plates in a vacuum. The data plot indicated areas of diminished energy between the plates, which caused them to push toward each other as if trying to fill the void. This is known as negative vacuum energy density, a phenomenon in quantum mechanics called, appropriately enough, the Casimir effect. It’s something that’s helping scientists understand the soupy physics of microscale structures, which some researchers hope can be applied to energy applications that are more practical, such as circuits and electromechanical systems.

But White noticed that the pattern of negative vacuum energy between the plates and around tiny cylindrical columns that they’d inserted in the space looked familiar. It precisely echoed the energy pattern generated by a type of exotic matter that some physicists believe could unlock high-speed interstellar travel. “We then looked, mathematically, at what happens if we placed a one-micron sphere inside of a four-micron cylinder under the same conditions, and found that this kind of structure could generate a little nanoscale warp bubble encapsulating that central region,” White explains.

That’s right—a warp bubble. The essential component of a heretofore fictional warp drive that has for decades been the obsession of physicists, engineers, and sci-fi fans. Warp drive, of course, is the stuff of Star Trek legend, a device enclosed within a spacecraft that gives the mortals aboard the ability to rip around the cosmos at superhuman speed. To the lay sci-fi fan, it’s a “black box”—a convenient, completely made-up workaround to avoid the harsh realities of interstellar travel. However, after decades of speculation, research, and experimentation, scientists believe a warp drive could actually work.

To emphasize: White didn’t actually make a warp bubble. But the data from his study led to an aha moment: For the first time, a buildable warp bubble showed promise of success.

Warp technology’s core science is surprisingly sound. Though the specific mechanics of an actual device haven’t been fully unpacked, the math points toward feasibility. In short, a real-life warp drive would use massive amounts of energy, which can come in the form of mass, to create enough gravitational pull to distort spacetime in a controlled fashion, allowing a ship to speed along inside a self-generated bubble that itself is able to travel at essentially any speed. Warp drives popped up in fiction intermittently for several decades before Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry plugged one into the USS Enterprise in 1966. But Miguel Alcubierre, PhD, a Mexican theoretical physicist and professed Star Trek enthusiast, gave the idea real-world legs when he released a paper in 1994 speculating that such a drive was mathematically possible. It was the first serious treatment of a warp drive’s feasibility, and it made headlines around the world. His breakthrough inspired more scientists to nudge the theoretical aspects of warp drive toward concrete, practical applications.

“I proposed a ‘geometry’ for space that would allow faster-than-light travel as seen from far away, essentially expanding space behind the object we want to move and contracting it in front,” Alcubierre says. “This forms a ‘bubble’ of distorted space, inside of which an object—a spaceship, say—could reside.”

Physicists tend to speak in relative terms. By injecting the sly qualifier “as seen from far away,” Alcubierre might sound like he’s describing the galactic equivalent of an optical illusion—an effect perhaps similar to driving past a truck going the opposite direction on the highway when you’re both going 60 miles an hour. Sure feels like a buck-twenty, doesn’t it? But the A-to-B speed is real; the warp effect simply shortens the literal distance between two points. You’re not, strictly speaking, moving faster than light. Inside the bubble, all appears relatively normal, and light moves faster than you are, as it should. Outside the bubble, however, you’re haulin’ the mail.

Alcubierre’s proposal had solved one of the initial hurdles to achieving warp speeds: The very idea clashes with Einstein’s long-accepted theory of general relativity, which states that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, but it doesn’t preclude space itself from traveling faster than that. In fact, scientists speculate that the same principles explain the rapid expansion of the universe after the Big Bang.

While concluding that warp speed was indeed possible, Alcubierre also found that it would require an enormous amount of energy to sustain the warp bubble. He theorized that negative energy—the stuff hinted at by White’s experimentation with Casimir cavities—could be a solution. The only problem is that no one has yet proved that negative energy is real. It’s the unobtanium of our spacefaring imaginations, something researchers only believe to exist. In theory, however, this unknown matter may be sufficiently powerful that future warp drive designers could channel it to contract spacetime around it. In conceptual drawings of warp-capable spacecraft, enormous material rings containing this energy source surround a central fuselage. When activated, it warps spacetime around the entire ship. The more intense the warping, the faster the warp travel is achieved.

Of course, it’s not that simple. Physicist José Natário, PhD, a professor at the Instituto Superior Técnico in Lisbon, wrote his own influential paper about the mathematical feasibility of warp drives in 2001. However, he is concerned about practical conundrums, like the amount of energy required. “You need to be able to curve spacetime quite a lot in order to do this,” he says. “We’re talking about something that would be much, much more powerful than the sun.”

Alcubierre is similarly skeptical that his theoretical ideas might ever be used to develop a working warp drive. “In order to have a bubble about 100 meters wide traveling at precisely the speed of light, you would need about 100 times the mass of the planet Jupiter converted into negative energy, which of course sounds absurd,” he says. By that standard, he concludes, a warp drive is very unlikely.

Physicists love a challenge, though. In the 29 years since Alcubierre published his paper, other scientists have wrestled with the implications of the work, providing alternative approaches to generating the energy using more accessible power sources, finding oblique entry points to the problem, and batting ideas back and forth in response to one another’s papers. They use analogies involving trampolines, tablecloths, bowling balls, balloons, conveyor belts, and music to explain the physics.

They even have their own vocabulary. It’s not faster-than-light travel; it’s superluminal travel, thank you. Then there’s nonphysical and physical—a.k.a. the critical distinction between theoretical speculation and something that can actually be engineered. (Pro tip: We’re aiming for physical here, folks.) They do mention Star Trek a lot, but never Star Wars. Even the scruffiest-looking nerf herder knows that the ships in Star Wars use hyperdrive, which consumes fuel, rather than warp drives, which don’t use propulsive technology but instead rely on, well, warping. They’re also vague about details like what passengers would experience, what gravity is like on board since you’re carrying around boatloads of energy, and what would happen if someone, say, jumped out of the ship while warping. (A speculative guess: Nothing good.)

Such research isn’t typically funded by academic institutions or the DARPAs and NASAs of the world, so much of this work occurs in the scientists’ spare time. One such scientist and Star Trek enthusiast is physicist Erik Lentz, PhD. Now a researcher at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington, Lentz was doing postdoctoral work at Göttingen University in Germany when, amid the early, isolated days of the pandemic, he mulled the idea of faster-than-light travel. He published a paper in 2021 arguing that warp drives could be generated using positive energy sources instead of the negative energy that Alcubierre’s warp drive seemed to require.

“There are a number of barriers to entry to actually being able to build a warp drive,” Lentz says. “The negative energy was the most obvious, so I tried to break that barrier down.”

He explored a new class of solutions in Einstein’s general relativity while focusing on something called the weak-energy condition, which, he explains, tracks the positivity of energy in spacetime. He hit upon a “soliton solution”—a wave that maintains its shape and moves at a constant velocity—that could both satisfy the energy-level challenge and travel faster than light. Such a warp bubble could travel along using known energy sources, though harnessing those at the levels needed are still far beyond our capabilities. The next step, he notes, may be bringing the energy requirements for a warp drive to within the range of a nuclear fusion reactor.

A fusion-powered device could theoretically travel to and from Proxima Centauri, Earth’s nearest star, in years instead of decades or millennia, and then go faster and faster as power sources improve. Current conventional rocket technology, on the other hand, would take 50,000 years just for a one-way trip—assuming, of course, there was an unlimited fuel supply for those engines.

Like Alcubierre’s original thesis, Lentz’s paper had a seismic impact on the warp drive community, prompting yet another group of scientists to dig into the challenge. Physicist Alexey Bobrick and technology entrepreneur Gianni Martire have been particularly prolific. In 2021, they released a paper theorizing that a class of subliminal warp drives, traveling at just a fraction of light speed, could be developed from current scientific understanding. While that paper essentially argued that it’s perfectly acceptable to walk before you can run, they followed it up with another theory earlier this year that describes how a simulated black hole, created using sound waves and glycerin and tested with a laser beam, could be used to evaluate the levels of gravitational force needed to warp spacetime. The duo coded that breakthrough into a public app that they hope will help more quickly push theoretical ideas to practical ones. Though the team is waiting for the technology to clear a peer review stage before releasing details, the app is essentially a simulator that allows scientists to enter their warp-speed equations to validate whether they’re practical.

“When somebody publishes a warp metric for the first time, people say, ‘Okay, is your metric physical?’” Martire says. The answer to that question—whether the metric has practical potential or is strictly theoretical—is hard to establish given the challenges of testing these hypotheses. That determination could take six to eight months. “Now we can tell you within seconds, and it shows you visually how off you are or how close you are,” he says.

While useful, the app will speed up the preliminary math only for future researchers. Galaxy-sized challenges remain before we ever experience turbocharged interstellar travel. Alcubierre worries in particular about what may happen near the walls of the warp bubble. The distortion of space is so violent there, he notes, that it would destroy anything that gets close. “If you collide with something on your path, it would almost certainly be catastrophic,” he says.

Natário mulls even more practical issues, like steering and stopping. “It’s a bubble of space, that you’re pushing through space,” he says. “So, you’d have to tell space ... to curve in front of your spaceship.” But therein lies the problem: You can’t signal to the space in front of you to behave the way you want it to.

His opinion? Superluminal travel is impossible. “You need these huge deformations that we have no idea how to accomplish,” Natário says. “So yes, there has been a lot of effort toward this and studying these weird solutions, but this is all still completely theoretical, abstract, and very, very, very, very far from getting anywhere near a practical warp drive.” That’s “very” to the power of four, mind you—each crushing blow pushing us exponentially, excruciatingly further and further away from our yearned-for superluminal lives.

Ultimately, the pursuit of viable high-speed interstellar transportation also points to a more pressing terrestrial challenge: how the scientific community tackles ultra-long-term challenges in the first place. Most of the research so far has come from self-starters without direct funding, or by serendipitous discoveries made while exploring often unrelated research, such as Dr. White’s work on Casimir cavities.

Many scientists argue that we’re in a multi-decade period of stagnation in physics research, and warp drive—despite its epic time horizons before initial research leads to galaxy-spanning adventures—is somewhat emblematic of that stagnation. Sabine Hossenfelder, a research fellow at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies and creator of the YouTube channel Science Without the Gobbledygook, noted in a 2020 blog post that physics research has drifted away from frequent, persistent physical experimentation to exorbitant infusions of cash into relatively few devices. She writes that with fewer experiments, serendipitous discoveries become increasingly unlikely. Without those discoveries, the technological progress needed to keep experiments economically viable never materializes.

When asked whether this applied equally to warp drive, Hossenfelder sees a faint but plausible connection. “Warp drives are an idea that is not going to lead to applications in the next 1,000 years or so,” she says. “So they don’t play a big role in that one way to another. But when it comes to the funding, you see some overlap in the problems.”

So, despite all the advances, the horizon for a warp drive remains achingly remote. That hasn’t fazed the scientists involved, though. A few years ago, while teaching in France, White visited the Strasbourg Cathedral with his wife. While admiring its 466-foot-tall spire, he was struck by the fact that construction began in 1015 but didn’t wrap up until 1439—a span of 424 years. Those who built the basement had no chance of ever seeing the finished product, but they knew they had to do their part to aid future generations. “I don’t have a crystal ball,” White says. “I don’t know what the future holds. But I know what I need to be doing right now.”

Eric Adams is a writer and photographer who focuses on technology, transportation, science, travel, and other subjects for a wide range of outlets, including Wired, The Drive, Gear Patrol, Men's Health, Popular Science, Forbes, and others.

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