Our telescopes have been gazing into the deepest parts of the universe, unraveling mysterious findings as well as hinting at others. Ever since man stepped on the moon, we have envisioned to explore what’s beyond and form mankind’s first mark on the un-explored planets of the solar system. While NASA plans to land humans on Mars in 2030s, Voyager 1 — the space craft that has traveled the furthest from Earth than any man made object in existence — has entered interstellar space to show us the cosmos like never before.

We’ve talked enough about interstellar travel. Literature on the topic is immense, and sci-fi movies like Interstellar have explored the possibility of entering interstellar realm for search of habitable worlds. Existing technologies severely limit our ability to step out anywhere beyond Low Earth Orbit, yet we envisage ways to traverse astronomical expanses for exploration.

When Alan Eustace broke the sound barrier by skydiving from the stratosphere, the world began to speculate if we can break the light speed barrier. However, the idea of faster than light travel remained a conjecture. After all, there’s physics to cheat if we are to go FTL.

“Warp Drive” is a term used for a faster-than-light (FTL) spacecraft propulsion system. It has been widely used in many science fiction works, and is one of the fundamental features of the Star Trek franchise. The Warp Drive works on the idea that space is not empty, but a fabric (as described in the Theory of Relativity) that can be distorted by matter. Warp fields generated by this matter form a subspace bubble which envelops a space craft while distorting the space-time continuum, thus moving the star ship at greater than light velocities. This idea was first  suggested by a Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre in 1994

Warping Space-time

Alcubierre’s idea of a warp drive included a football shaped space craft encircled by a ring of exotic matter. This ring would allow the space ship to stay in a bubble of flat space-time, whereas the region around the space-ship would be warped.

           A warp bubble surrounding a starship, which protects the ship and crew members as space and time distorts.

It seemed like a fantastic idea! There shall be no limit to the velocity a star-ship can attain. Enormous G-forces would not affect the star-ship and crew due to weightlessness. Moreover, the crew would not suffer the time dilation entities suffer due to traveling at near light velocities, as the passage of time inside the warp bubble and outside would be same.

A ring-shaped warp drive device could transport a football-shape starship (center) to effective speeds faster than light.

Exploiting this concept, we’ll get to travel large distances without having to deal with the limitations imposed by physics.

So, why haven’t we engineered such a device? Because, calculations suggest that such a device would require prohibitive amounts of energy. Theoretically, the minimum energy required to run a warp drive is almost equivalent to the mass-energy of the planet Jupiter

Warp Drive: Science Fiction to Fact

However, fresh calculations of the energy required to warp space-time suggest that the much fantasized warp drive may become a reality in the distant future.

The voracious energy calculations obtained earlier were further speculated by Harold White — a physicist and team lead at NASA’s Advanced Propulsion Team. He proposed that if the ring circling the space craft was rounded rather than kept flat, there would be tremendous energy reductions. Enough to be powered by energy equivalent to the mass of a space-craft like Voyager-1 probe of NASA.

Moreover, the energy required can be reduced even further if the intensity of the space-warps can be oscillated over time. There findings change the plausibility of a warp drive. From impractical, to worthy of further investigation.

Harold G. White, a NASA physicist, is working on the concept of warp drive, like on “Star Trek.”

Following this, White and his colleagues have set up a mini version of the warp drive in their laboratory. Their setup includes a the White-Juday Warp Field Interferometer at the Johnson Space Center that instigates micro versions of space-time warps.The team is trying to perturb space-time by one part in 10 million. This is a small step towards creating a real life warp drive.

Why bother about Interstellar Travel?

 “If we’re ever going to become a true space-faring civilization, we’re going to have to think outside the box a little bit, were going to have to be a little bit audacious”

Sooner or later, Earth will be facing a booming population, dwindling resources and ecosystem change due to global warming. As an intelligent species, we can change our environment and use technologies that can transform a civilization to further survival.

We are still battling the question — whether space exploration is a viable solution to the problems this civilization is yet to face, is it an insurmountable barrier. Or is it too much work to move to another planet and establish colonies there.

Long before characters like Captain Kirk and Jean Luc Picard embodied our “sci-fi notions” of interstellar travel, people have looked to the stars and envisioned an interstellar future. Unfortunately, their vision is all too often stymied by politics, financial limitations and social stigma, and visionaries are relegated to “dreamers” and scientists are viewed with disdain. At first, every bizarre idea receives critical slams, yet every idea implemented takes mankind to a whole different level of evolution.   

But one thing’s for sure: Interstellar travel is a possible solution to keep humanity from possible extinction scenarios. Although, we are far from becoming a space faring civilization, but that won’t deter us from exploring the unknown beyond.

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