Warp drive. It's the stuff of pure science fiction. It propels ships in Star Trek to brave new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations. But give NASA a few years, and warp speed may become science fact instead of science fiction.
"Perhaps a Star Trek experience within our lifetime is not such a remote possibility." These are the words of Dr. Harold "Sonny" White, the Advanced Propulsion Theme Lead for the NASA Engineering Directorate. Dr. White and his colleagues don't just believe a real life warp drive is theoretically possible; they've already started the work to create one.
A team at NASA's Eagleworks research lab is working on an interferometer test bed that will try to generate and detect a microscopic instance of a little warp bubble.
In layman's terms: They're trying to figure out if they can find a "loophole" in physics to create a warp drive for interstellar travel at speeds much faster than traditional propulsion will allow. So fast, we could potentially make it to Alpha Centauri in under a month.
We're not exactly sure how that averages out in Star Trek warp speeds, but it's a lot quicker than what we have now.
As NASA Engineering Directorate Dr. Harold "Sonny" White explains:
"By harnessing the physics of cosmic inflation, future spaceships crafted to satisfy the laws of these mathematical equations may actually be able to get somewhere unthinkably fast--and without adverse effects. The math would allow you to go to Alpha Centauri in two weeks as measured by clocks here on Earth. So somebody's clock aboard the spacecraft has the same rate of time as somebody in mission control here in Houston might have. There are no tidal forces inside the bubble, no undue issues, and the proper acceleration is zero. When you turn the field on, everybody doesn't go slamming against the bulkhead, which would be a very short and sad trip."
The next big question is energy. Luckily, White and his team are also working on something that could make power generation less of an issue.
Though exotic matter is the ideal fuel source, White's team has determined that the amount potentially needed to power a warp trip is much less than initially assumed:
"Instead of a Jupiter-sized ball of exotic matter, you will only need 500 kilograms to 'send a 10-meter bubble (32.8 feet) at an effective velocity of 10c.'"
In case you're wondering, 10c is 10-times the speed of light. Now that's fast.
So, do you think you'll be able to book a flight to Alpha Centauri in your lifetime?