Faster-Than-Light Travel


Warp Drive
by Bill Hamilton -

November 29, 2000

Since the question of how extraterrestrial spacecraft could travel the immense light-year distances from their home world to Earth without taking several human lifetimes to reach their destination I would like to suggest that such alien scientists probably considered both theoretical solutions and experimented with a number of ideas just as Marc Millis is pursuing for NASA.

Marc has been with NASA's Glenn Research Center since 1982 after earning a degree in Physics from Georgia Tech. In addition to Marc's more conventional assignments that have spanned engineering zero-gravity facilities, electric propulsion test facilities, ion engines, rocket control and monitoring systems, and cryogenic propellant delivery systems, Marc is now the Project Manager for NASA's "Breakthrough Propulsion Physics" (BPP) Project. The goal of this project is to conduct credible research toward the incredible possibilities of the "space drive" and the "warp drive" -- ideas which today are just science fiction. In his free time he builds, photographs and writes articles on scale models, including science fiction models made from scrap plastic.

Here are some quotes from Marc Millis concerning "warp drive": (Notice the revelance to UFO studies)

The ideal interstellar propulsion system would be one that could get you to other stars as quickly and comfortably as envisioned in science fiction. Before this can become a reality, three scientific breakthroughs are needed: discovery of a means to exceed light speed, discovery of a means to propel a vehicle without propellant, and discovery of a means to power such devices.

The most obvious challenge to practical interstellar travel is speed. Our nearest neighboring star is 4.3 Light Years away. Trip times to reach our nearest neighboring star at conventional speeds would be prohibitively long. At 55 miles-per-hour for example, it would take over 50 million years to get there! I don't think even the twinkies in the glove box would survive that long. At a more typical spacecraft speed, for example the 3-day trip time that it took the Apollo spacecraft to reach the moon, it would still take over 900 thousand years. I still don't think the twinkies will make it. And even if we consider the staggering speed of 37-thousand miles-per-hour, which was the speed of the NASA Voyager spacecraft as it left our solar system years ago, the trip would still take 80,000 years. Maybe the twinkies would make it, but there would be nothing left on board to eat them. In conclusion, if we want to cruise to other stars within comfortable and fundable time spans (say, less than a term in Congress), we have to figure out a way to go faster than light.

If you could control gravity or inertial forces, you would have a propulsion breakthrough (thrusting without rockets), a means to create synthetic gravity environments for space crews, a means to create zero-gravity environment on Earth - hey that could be fun - and a whole host of other things.

Like "Warp Drives", this subject is also at the level of speculation, with some facets edging into the realm of science. We are at the point where we know what we do know and know what we don't, and there is a lot that we don't know. The better news is that there is no science that says that gravity control is impossible.

First, we do know that gravity and electromagnetism are linked phenomena. We are quite adept at controlling electromagnetic phenomena, so one can presume that such a connection might eventually lead to using our control of electromagnetism to control gravity. General Relativity, another one of Einstein's doings, is one way to describe such connections. Another way is through new theories from quantum mechanics that link gravity and inertia to something called "vacuum fluctuations."

Is this subject being studied?

Historically, gravity has been studied in the general sense, but not very much from the point of view of seeking propulsion breakthroughs. With the newly formed NASA Breakthrough Propulsion Physics program, that situation is changing.

"Warp Drives", "Hyperspace Drives", or any other term for faster-than-light travel is at the level of speculation, with some facets edging into the realm of science. We are at the point where we know what we do know and know what we don't, but do not know for sure if faster than light travel is possible.

The bad news is that the bulk of scientific knowledge that we have accumulated to date concludes that faster than light travel is impossible. This is an artifact of Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity. Yes, there are some other perspectives; tachyons, wormholes, inflationary universe, spacetime warping, quantum paradoxes...ideas that are in credible scientific literature, but it is still too soon to know if such ideas are viable. One of the issues that is evoked by any faster-than-light transport is time paradoxes: causality violations and implications of time travel. As if the faster than light issue wasn't tough enough, it is possible to construct elaborate scenarios where faster-than-light travel results in time travel. Time travel is considered far more impossible than light travel.

Here's the premise behind the Alcubierre "warp drive": Although Special Relativity forbids objects to move faster than light within spacetime, it is unknown how fast spacetime itself can move. To use an analogy, imagine you are on one of those moving sidewalks that can be found in some airports. The Alcubierre warp drive is like one of those moving sidewalks. Although there may be a limit to how fast one can walk across the floor (analogous to the light speed limit), what about if you are on a moving section of floor that moves faster than you can walk (analogous to a moving section of spacetime)? In the case of the Alcubierre warp drive, this moving section of spacetime is created by expanding spacetime behind the ship (analogous to where the sidewalk emerges from underneath the floor), and by contracting spacetime in front of the ship (analogous to where the sidewalk goes back into the floor). The idea of expanding spacetime is not new. Using the "Inflationary Universe" perspective, for example, it is thought that spacetime expanded faster than the speed of light during the early moments of the Big Bang. So if spacetime can expand faster than the speed of light during the Big Bang, why not for our warp drive? These theories are too new to have either been discounted or proven viable.

Bill Hamilton
Executive Director
Skywatch International Inc.

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