Warp drive now exists but we are a long way from boldly going anywhere

warp drive
Image by Shacil | Bigstockphoto

Warp drive is now a ‘thing.’ As with many of the best inventions, it appeared while scientists were looking the other way.

Also, as with some inventions, warp drive came from science fiction and, yes, from Star Trek. The first scientist, Miguel Alcubierre, was watching the Next Generation back in 1994, when he had an ‘aha, wait a second,’ moment and started making notes. He was the one who realised that if you can’t make something go faster than the speed of light, it is possible to make the distance you need to travel shorter. Essentially, he realised that you can indeed bend space/time and stay within the rules of Einstein’s theory of Relativity.

He went on the road, lecturing audiences on the warp drive.

It might have stopped there unless the pandemic hadn’t locked us down and another scientist , Eric Lentz, decided to binge watch Star Trek and, at some point, he remembered a lecture by the first guy. Bored, or inspired he had a ‘why not’ moment and started making notes.

He came up with a hypothetical model for a warp drive, which created a lot of negative gravity in front of a vessel, allowing it to go faster than the speed of light.

Next a gentleman working for DARPA, Harold Sonny White, happened upon the model and, knowing the theory, noticed something while working on the Casimir model, that made it real. He realised that a pocket of negative mass he was studying would be the thing that would make it work.

The good news is that we have cracked warp drive and faster than the speed of light travel is possible.

The bad news is that it works, for now, at a nano-particle level, which isn’t going to get Mr Musk to Mars in a matter of days. The other bad news is that the DARPA gentleman is being funded to study something else, so can’t carry on with the warp drive.

Unfortunately, warp drive, like teleportation, is possible, but only on miniscule levels.

But it is possible.

There has been another massive breakthrough in a related field in the last few weeks. A team in Oxford, England has proved that fusion power is possible. They built a mini-Sun and held a fusion reaction stable for five seconds. If and when that experiment is scaled up, we are looking at the beginning of a very different era in how we power stuff and how we get around.

Both breakthroughs are wonderful but equally and oppositely frustrating because they are at a scale that we can’t use to get to Mars or beyond. Yet.

Another point here is that Elon Musk, who is keen to get to Mars, is still confident that he can reduce the time it takes to get there from five months (minimum) to about one. And he is also confident that he can beat NASA’s target of getting there by 2030, to 2026.

Either Musk is doing a ‘Musk’ or he knows something or has invented something that we don’t know about. Maybe there is a warp drive in a secret office at SpaceX.

Let us hope his warp drive is a robust unit – last week, 40 of his satellites were wiped out by a solar storm. If we can boldly go anywhere, spaceships are going to need to be tough as well as fast.

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